STEAM Academy Nurtures the Digital Minds of Tomorrow
27 Oct 2020
Merrimac State High School is nurturing the digital minds of tomorrow through its STEAM (Science, Technology, Enterprise, Arts and Maths) Academy in robotics and artificial intelligence by preparing their students for a technological world through a comprehensive technology program.
The Academy, led by former software engineer Daniel Ricardo and supported by Merrimac State High School’s leadership team, was launched 5 years ago after identifying limiting opportunities for students to engage in the fields of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. In establishing the program Daniel Ricardo explains Merrimac’s thinking: “We looked around at what other schools were doing and made a commitment to give our students the opportunity to explore technological concepts through practical applications and develop their digital skills to better prepare them for the world beyond school.”
With the digital landscape constantly evolving, so too does the Academy program. “We are always looking abroad to see what else is out there, to better understand how we can continue to innovate and stay at the cutting edge of technology”, says Ricardo. Merrimac’s STEAM Academy has created such an enduring culture that has many of the school’s alumni return to mentor current students. Former student and now mentor Chris Bouchard says “it doesn’t feel like a school at all, more like a family.”
Daniel Ricardo points out that while there’s no guarantee the Academy’s students will end up choosing an IT career pathway, all of them will utilise the technological skills they’ve gained from the program as almost every field has embedded IT systems driving them. “It’s all about developing their critical thinking and problem solving capabilities, identifying problems and coming up with creative ways of using technology to resolve them”, he says.
Cyber security challenge
As a result of the school’s STEAM program, Merrimac has a long and proud history of success in national and international competitions with numerous trophies to their credit. Cyber Taipan is a global competition where students compete as cyber security experts to protect digital systems from cyber attacks. In Australia, the event is run by the CSIRO with students competing in two rounds, having them lockdown 3 operating systems over a six hour period while they identify and fix vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers. This year, Merrimac’s senior team placed 1st in Queensland and 5th in the country against 90 teams nationwide. They have advanced to the next stage of the competition which will now be held virtually due to the current travel restrictions. Unfortunately, this is not the only trip impacted by travel restrictions. In April, students missed out on representing Australia competing at the VEX World Robotics Championship in Louisville, Kentucky; and also defending their title at the World Robotics Summit in Tokyo for the same reason.
Merrimac’s success extends beyond their competition results, leading the way through gender participation as well. With most school’s female participation in similar programs running at around 10%, at Merrimac it’s closer to 40%. Last year’s champion robotics team was comprised of three girls and one boy. Current student Siaan Petersen says: “When we were at primary school there wasn’t anything like this to get you started, although now Merrimac does a lot of work with local primary schools to get younger kids engaged much earlier. They come here for STEAM days where they build robots and learn how to code them and while we never had that opportunity it’s great to be able to help them.”