The Project Counter’s laptop “science cookie” has hidden QR codes that trigger explanatory videos.

The Project Counter

As we shift towards technology-led economies, the demand for a digitally skilled workforce will increase, according to Infosys. However, young Australians are the least interested in improving their knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects and are ill-prepared for a digital economy, the company found. Enrolment in STEM subjects has also hit a 20-year low in Australia, according to a government report.

In Melbourne, a startup called The Project Counter is tackling Australia’s STEM skills shortage with a very different approach. It has initiated a Kickstarter campaign to bring “interactive science cookies” to the homes of young Australians and show the magic behind science and technology.

Part science model, part toy, part edible, the organic cookies resemble everyday electronic items that children can pick apart to learn more about how the technology works, with the aim of getting children engaged in science from an early age.

The company’s founder Tracy Tam told TechRepublic that the project combines her background as an engineer for a telco with her love of baking, as well as the technical challenge of making cakes that feature unusual elements such as flashing lights.

“I was a solution architect so I was designing a lot of the new systems that came on board at the bleeding edge,” she said. “So I got addicted really to the thrill of building something new and solving a problem.

“A lot of my children and their friends are seeing [STEM subjects] as a ‘urgh, why do we need science, it’s not pretty, it’s not exciting, it’s not inspiring’. But I know that’s not true because obviously when I put all those bleeding edge systems in, [I was] trying to solve a problem that nobody had solved before and when you find the solution to that problem, it’s adrenaline-packed. I know that it’s a very exciting career to go into.”

Tam created two prototype cookies, one resembling an oven and the other a laptop. Both have multiple QR codes printed with edible ink on rice paper that when scanned, trigger an original animated clip that explains how that tech works.

Tam said that each QR code will be on a particular part of the device, with the resulting animated clip referring to the specific technology behind that component; on the laptop cookie, for example, the QR code on the edible “screen” will explain the concept of an LED.

“If you pull off the battery, it talks about the lead-acid in terms of visualisation and obviously then we can extrapolate to the lithium battery as a concept, memory, the disc drive, how the computer would actually remember a piece of data, because a lot of people talk about data, what does it actually mean at a physical level, how do scientists get this to work. So as they pull off each bit they will get a different concept.”

As children are naturally inquisitive and react positively to being given a physical task, science cookies could stimulate an interest in science and tech more effectively than something like a textbook, Tam believes. It’s new, more interactive efforts to get children engaged such as the science cookies could transform Australia’s STEM numbers.

She also thinks tech in general has an “image problem”, and that TV shows such as The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd, which depict physicists and engineers as socially inept and awkward, could be partly to blame for a lack of STEM-qualified Australians.

“There’s a popular image at the moment of the guy in the hoody coding in their basement… and that’s very powerful. Unfortunately that’s the image in popular culture at the moment and it sort of overrides everything else. What are they going to see on TV in regards to a science-tech program? The Big Bang Theory … a whole bunch of people in a dorm, being silly, being laughed at.

“It’s the truth and you and I both know that right, tech is cool, it solves problems, we change the world. We just need to let the kids know, we just need to let the parents know as well in a way that’s easily understandable for them, and that’s not in the language of code, for example.

“For some reason we seem to have a gap between where this cultural background is, to the fact that people are just not doing STEM, people are not associating with this American, problem-solving, can-do-anything attitude to technology or science. Those are precisely the type of people that we need.”

Tam said that going forward, The Project Counter will focus on turning more everyday tech items into science cookies, while also embedding science concepts into their own story books for a more interactive learning experience. The definition of a success for the company would not just be teaching children about science and tech, but that in 10-20 years from now, major players in Australia’s tech industry would see their science cookies as a crucial moment in their developing an interest.

“I believe Australia with our cultural background has a very big opportunity in terms of turning out people like Elon Musk, Bill Gates … passionate, inspired people that will change people’s lives.”

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