A home for digital technology in the STEAM age

A home for digital technology in the STEAM age

Mike Hughes talks to Rónán O’Beirne, who has just led a £10m project at Bradford College.

Rónán O’Beirne got the keys to his new front door on 8 June, 42 weeks after the first brick was laid. That might seem like quite a wait, and perhaps you would be on the phone to the builder if you were hoping for a quick move. But this was no ordinary build, and the wait was well worth it. Rónán, director of learning development and research at Bradford College can now walk proudly around the new £10m Advanced Technology Centre, just a few steps from the college campus on the site of a former council car park.

It is STEAM-powered – serving the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics sectors, but very much of the digital age, largely paid for with a Skills Funding Agency grant, with huge help from the council and including incubator space for new businesses.

Rónán often seems like a mild-mannered academic - enthusiastic, but softly spoken. But as we tour the new building, his attention to detail is remarkable. As he tests which radiators are on and which furniture has been delivered, it is easy to imagine the drive and proprietorial dedication that has brought this project to fruition.

This was a big dream – bold and almost out of reach for a college like Bradford. But here it sits, striking in design and approach and there sits Rónán, happy and proud. “We realised there was a skills gap, particularly in light engineering and manufacturing at technician level – and that was the main driver for the building.

“We are putting in equipment that will allow students to learn how to use manufacturing techniques, particularly in areas like additive layer manufacturing, which we know as 3D printing, and metrology, the science of measuring, which is important for precision 3D printing. “There will also be automation, around robotic use. We are very interested to see how that will be treated in terms of skills requirements in the future, with drone use and robotic arms.”

That’s quite a lot to pack into 3,600m² spread over three floors – along with ten of the very latest 3D printers. But the case was made over a year ago and already the skills needed and sectors being supplied are changing.

“Technology has progressed very rapidly over the last three years, and certainly with 3D printing many of the original patents for the technology have expired and so a lot of technology has come to market and the prices have come down.

“It’s quite likely there will be a personal 3D printer on the market by next Christmas, which shows how fast the market is changing.

“Businesses have been slower to change their processes because for them it is a big thing and a heavy investment to get to the scale they would need. So we see an opportunity for us to be able to share the burden of that investment and perhaps upskill their staff.”

This is business-facing taken to another level. The role of universities and colleges was to first educate their students and send them on their way. The game-changer then was to work with potential employers to straighten out the line between education and employment.

Now the game is changing again and Bradford is showing that those same colleges and universities are now offering their more advanced services to those same potential employers, forging an even more secure bond to help students become wage earners.

“The businesses we have been in contact with have been very positive,” says Rónán. “Most of them are keen to get involved with technologies that are on the horizon for their sector and develop the right skills. The average age of a welder in Bradford is 53, so the approach taken in training these people is very interesting to us. One of the pieces of equipment in the ATC is an augmented-reality welder, which uses a headset to make the person who uses it think they are actually welding. There are huge advantages there with wastage of materials and health and safety.

“One of the key things in the building is this simulated learning, for instance using technology to put someone at the scene of a fire or car accident. We have invested quite a bit of technology in recording people’s reaction to situations created in augmented reality.”

This far-sighted approach to a need only just beginning to exist will future-proof the building, as will its actual design, including double-height spaces to facilitate training in new construction techniques – or to allow drones to be flown inside. Rónán also plans to open the building to the public at weekends, to allow them to interact with the technology and help demystify what goes on inside a cutting edge college and enable hackerspaces and makerspaces where communities of enthusiasts can work together.

“It’s been important from the start to allow students to get their hands on the technology and interact with it. If their learning is too theory-based they tend to disengage from it."

The £10m ATC and the main £50m David Hockney campus are both examples of the commitment of the college to its ambition of supporting employability, enterprise and innovation within its community. Rónán is a librarian by profession, in Dublin, London and Bradford, but with a passion for learning technologies and how they can help students and influence and enable new teaching practices. “That’s what I find interesting. The buildings themselves are just the infrastructure you need to deliver those different types of learning. My motivation for doing all this is from the learner’s perspective, delivering and enhancing a learning environment.

“So having entrepreneurs working in incubator units alongside our students will be particularly beneficial. And we will be ‘sweating the assets’ by having the equipment available as long as possible each day and over the weekends to help those businesses.”

How that mix of entrepreneurs is brought together will be a skill in itself. The council is helping select the right people and the right sectors. To an extent Rónán will be able to control that for the benefit of his students as much as his tenants. All the time he will be retaining the flexibility to move quickly and bringing in the latest innovation or brightest mind. “Things are changing. Students are no longer happy to be taught in a square room, having someone at the front teach them in a didactic style.

“The previous building to the Hockney was very cellular, and you couldn’t get wi-fi and you couldn’t fit enough computers in and it didn’t have enough power. So a new building was needed. Now we seem to have that environment where we have that happy buzz of people busy working.”

That buzz also comes from a cutting-edge curriculum to match the equipment. The college staff are challenged all the time to bring to the fore the flexibility they have to adapt to changing demands from new sectors that didn’t even exist a few years ago – like drones and 3D printing.

“When you are moving in such a fast-paced world one of the challenges is the curriculum side of things,” says Rónán. “Trying to get things like robotics into the FE curriculum can be quite difficult because of the process and bureaucracy involved in getting courses validated. That takes time and can take some of the edge off the innovation.”

The attributes that make him a perfect fit for his job were being developed in his own schooldays. He describes himself as “an impatient and strategic learner” only progressing in subjects that interested him. Until he found the right way of learning – building his own enhanced learning environment – and then he moved more quickly.

That journey allows him to have a great deal of empathy with his students, and a degree of pride that he is helping them find their own way forwards, a pride that was enhanced by conversations with his architect father as the project was progressing. He never lived to see the finished building, but father and son talked many times about it and you sense there is more than a little of the O’Beirne gene coursing through the ATC.

Now that it is up and running, Rónán has already moved on to the next job, as head of library and learning services at Southampton Solent University. His progress, guidance and foresight mark him out as another successful alumni from a college growing in reputation and aspiration. It will be fascinating to see how the ATC will change the perception of the college from outside as well as its own view of its potential.