Work & study

Students with a keen eye on a digital future

St Vincent Primary School students

Nick Nichols | December 22, 2021

St Vincent’s Catholic Primary School students Alexander and Sienna Earwicker – award-winning inventors at the age of 12 – are living proof that necessity is the mother of invention.

After seeing a friend with a vision impairment struggle with everyday tasks during swimming training in the pool, the twin siblings drew on their interest in science to create a device to help.

Their Vision Buddy prototype was a winner as the Gold Coast students competed against teams from 50 Catholic schools around Australia to take out one of four awards at the STEM MAD (Making a Difference) competition in Melbourne.

Alexander and Sienna were honoured in the Future is STEM Primary Schools category for 2021, bringing into focus the growing importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education on the Gold Coast in recent years.

STEM studies have been recognised by government and business as vital for Australia to remain competitive globally, and schools have responded with programs that actively encourage student participation.

According to Alfred Slogrove, the CEO of the city’s peak education body Study Gold Coast, STEM is a part of everyday life and increasingly a part of workplaces.

“Research suggests that many gifted children are fascinated by and excel in STEM topics,” says Mr Slogrove.

“Throughout Gold Coast schools we’ve seen a greater focus on STEM in the curriculum, particularly over the last 10 years with the realisation of future opportunities for our children in an increasingly technological world.”

The national honours achieved by Alexander and Sienna prove that age is no barrier to innovation. The development of the Vision Buddy device was inspired by Alexander’s concern over the challenges his friend encountered every day with simple tasks while training at the swimming pool.

“As a competitive swimmer here on the Gold Coast, I would spend many hours swimming alongside my vision-impaired friend Anthony, who was training for the Paralympics,” says Alexander.

“I would watch him struggle to navigate simple tasks independently, such as putting on his fins, walking into the pool and finding his kickboard.”

Alexander and Sienna began searching for a solution, turning to Vision Australia to find out more about the problems vision-impaired people face in daily life. The aim was to create a device that could be broadly adapted to everyday use.

“We wanted to help my swim mate and others like him to be able to walk freely and confidently,” says Alexander.

The Vision Buddy prototype essentially comprises an ultrasonic sensor, a breadboard, buzzer, and an Arduino board as the micro-control unit. With the correct coding in place, the wearable device creates an audio alert to objects that are close by.

“When you put an object in front of the ultrasonic sensor it will set off a beep or alarm,” says Sienna.

“This is because the transmitter is sending out ultrasonic waves which bump off an object and return to the receiver. All this technology is in the compact box which is attachable with Velcro onto glasses and shoes.”

The twins refined their prototype over several months, and their submission to the national competition was supported by a video pitch for the judges. The project was aided by the support of the whole family.

“We lost our kitchen table for some time,” says mum Miranda Earwicker.

“They worked and worked, and when it didn’t work, they kept working some more and came up with what I think is a really good product. They’ve had so much support around them, and it’s definitely something they’ve learnt in their seven years here at the school – about giving back.”

St Vincent’s Catholic Primary School principal David Sewell says the ingenuity and determination of his Year 6 students are an inspiration for the entire school community.

“Their ability to innovate, their ability to empathise, and then their ability to allow technology to provide solutions for an issue in society such as that with visually impaired people is just outstanding,” says Mr Sewell. “They’re showing an intellect and wisdom beyond their years. I am really proud.”

The importance of STEM studies is reflected in the emerging career opportunities requiring these essential skills. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates STEM-related jobs in professional, scientific and technical services will surge by 12.5 per cent over the next five years. Computer system design services are set to grow even faster at 24.6 per cent.

“More than ever, STEM skills are essential for the fast-paced advances of the technological revolution,” says Mr Slogrove.

“Recently the World Economic Forum estimated that 65 per cent of children entering primary school today would end up working in a career that doesn’t yet exist. As the world of work rapidly changes, STEM skills will provide the key to many future career roles and jobs growth.”

Over the past decade, the Gold Coast has laid solid foundations for STEM-based industries that has attracted innovative companies from around the world establishing their national and international headquarters in the city.

“On the Gold Coast, you only have to look at the massive growth of our research facilities in the Health and Knowledge Precinct, advanced manufacturing industries and the rise of our burgeoning startup sector to see where the opportunities will be for generations to come,” says Mr Slogrove.

“The future will be driven by innovation through technology and, as we expand our STEM capabilities, we will be able to meet the needs of tomorrow.”

While STEM has been a key focus at St Vincent’s Catholic Primary School for many years, Mr Sewell notes that students are deriving broader benefits through the development of key life skills from this study discipline.

“It’s not about just collecting robots and other elements of technology, it’s about really developing an understanding of how science, technology, engineering and math can be implemented to solve real-world problems,” he says.

“Especially through initiatives likes STEM MAD, it gives students perspective and a deeper meaning into what they’re learning.”

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