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Engaging Engineering: Cornwall Marine Academy Workshop Essential Skills

    Suggested Age Range: 9-11
    Type of Activity: STEM Skills Challenge

    Research shows Essential skills[i] are as vital for children in building a positive future as the academic subjects they study at school. With a busy curriculum however, enabling children to recognise, develop and reflect on these skills can be a challenge; while ‘98% of teaching professionals see essential skills as important for employment opportunities,’ only ‘3% of teaching professionals agree strongly that essential skills are currently being taught sufficiently in education.’[ii]

    Careers Related Learning at primary can be a part of the roadmap towards success in skills development across the primary phase and beyond; helping children to see the value of developing their skills to realise their ambitions. Moreover, Cornish employers and businesses are invested in highlighting these skills in their interactions with children to ensure they have the talent they need for the future. Towards the end of the summer term, Cornwall Marine Academy CIC (CMA) did just that with their workshops in Boat Building and Engineering for primary pupils.

    Strengthening Connections

    Fifty-six year 5 and 6 children from St Just Primary school visited their main feeder secondary, Cape Cornwall School, as part of their Start Small, Dream Big employer engagement programme. They took part in half day creative workshops led by Joe Davies, CMA’s Education and Training Development Manager. Delivery at the secondary school, with the support of Careers Lead Mrs Williams and Careers Hub Coordinator Sarah Ableman, gave children an additional opportunity to develop their readiness for transition and created a sense of occasion. ‘It’s great to see the children working together in a space that feels grown up and connected to their next chapter,’ Mrs Carew, year 6 Education Assistant, told us.

    Boat Building

    Year 5 attended the morning session in Boat Building and bustled in excitedly. After quick introductions, Joe led with intention, outlining the essential skills he expected children to use to complete their challenge; communication, problem solving and teamwork. Year 5 learned about boat structure and propulsion systems before Joe set them their task; to design a boat considering structure, buoyancy and aesthetics. ‘I always get them to design before they start working with materials,’ said Joe, ‘it’s important they take the time to discuss and develop their ideas’. Children were thoroughly immersed in the design and build process – so much so they forgot about break time – and disputes were resolved by a reminder to use their essential skills to work well together.’ Once their build was completed, children were reminded to develop the aesthetics of their boat before the float test. ‘It was really fun building the boat and testing it out in the water,’ said Tyler, year 5. Testing their boats on water allowed children to get instant feedback, and they confidently made observations and recommendations on their own and others’ designs.

    Engineering Towers

    After a clearing of decks, year 6 arrived for their afternoon session in Engineering. The cohort in attendance will transition into Cape Cornwall school and were pleased to be on the site of their September destination. Joe again outlined the essential skills the children would need to use before giving them their brief; to build a tower with a minimum specified height, a maximum allocation of materials and able to withstand a number of external forces! The brief was left intentionally wide to allow children to respond creatively and imaginatively. It also tapped into children’s prior learning, with a number of groups recalling maths and science knowledge, ‘We’re using a triangle base, I remember learning at school they are the strongest shape,’ said Tabitha, year 6. Children impressed their teachers with their ability to negotiate and collaborate within their groups. Where needed, Joe offered advice and hints to prompt thinking around potential issues, ‘On seeing any challenges that arose, Joe inspired confidence in the groups – to work as a team, or individually to be resilient, and the end results were so impressive,’ said Mrs Harradine, year 5 Education Assistant. And just when children thought they were finished, they were given a stretch challenge; an adaptation to the tower to accommodate and protect an object. The children loved this final challenge and when testing started they were thrilled to see how their towers stood up against external forces; as with the morning workshop, it was a impactful opportunity for children to get an immediate understanding of their successes, suggest ideas for improvement and learn from their peers.


    The workshops were delivered with the intent of children developing their essential skills and these were clearly outlined at the start. A huge strength of both challenges is that there was no over explanation of approaches to limit the children’s thought process. Consequently, children were able to get straight down to their task, regulating team management and problem solving themselves. Additionally, the secondary school environment gave them the sense of being in a more ‘grown up’ space where they could take on leadership and rely less on the adults. Children were supported where needed but never overly directed and this allowed them to focus on the skills they were using: ‘I liked that we were able to choose the design for the boat, so it felt independent and like we were building a real boat,’ said Ayla, year 5. Children had a strong sense of ownership over their group work and were proud to see how their product fared on testing. Teachers also commented on group dynamics; that children who often took a ‘back seat’ were actively involved in decision making and, in some cases, leadership.

    Joe was thrilled with the response and output from the primary pupils: ‘Both year 5 and 6 faced a series of challenges throughout the day and used exceptional teamwork, communication and problem-solving skills, along with a good measure of resilience, to overcome those challenges. Well done and what a fantastic day it was!’

    Reflection and Extension

    1. Teachers could consolidate the impact of the workshop by asking to children to reflect on instances of using essential skills. This could be done at the end of the session or in the following days to highlight that communication, problem-solving and teamwork were key drivers in their engineering achievements.
    2. Skills reflection would be particularly helpful to children who don’t see themselves as having strengths in STEM and impact their confidence to engage in future STEM activities to boost ‘science capital’.
    3. Extending the network of STEM organisations or individuals able to engage with the school could be a means to continue to harness children’s enthusiasm post workshop; helping them continue to link their skills to the world of work and have lightbulb moments driven by meeting the ‘right person’ (a role model which inspires them) at the ‘right time’ (a moment where they feel comfortable, engaged and positive): ‘Joe said he had high hopes for our boat and that gave us confidence to work even harder,’ Evelina, year 5.
    4. Sharing a brief overview of the event and its impact with parent, carers and guardians in school communications might help to engage ‘yet to reach’ parents in the possibility of STEM careers for their children.

    [i] ‘Essential skills are those highly transferable skills that everyone needs to do almost any job, which make knowledge and technical skills fully productive.’ UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) (2009). The Employability Challenge

    [ii] Craig, R & Stewart, G (2024): Essential Skills Tracker 2024