Bren Hellier


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Posts by Bren

  • The Solar Challenge

    January 29th, 2019

    Practical Action’s new STEM Solar Challenge offers a great opportunity for young people to explore how solar power can transform the lives of people living ‘off-grid’.

    Set in the context of Practical Action’s work with communities in Gwanda, Zimbabwe who do not have access to mains electricity, the starting point for young people is a whole class activity to make a national electricity grid.  Pupils act as electricity pylons linking cities, towns and villages to power stations with string. The teacher then removes some of the string connections between towns and villages to simulate how some villages are not connected to the national electricity suppliers. Pupils have the opportunity to consider what life would be like for them without electricity before exploring ‘off-grid’ methods of generating electricity.

    Real life science

    This real-life context sets an ideal platform for relevant science investigations where pupils explore how electricity can be generated from alternate sources of energy including the use of solar cells. This also helps primary science and secondary physics teachers deliver the ‘electricity’ unit requirements within the UK’s science curriculum.

    ‘It’s been great teaching about electrical circuits in a real world context. It feels more meaningful for the children.’ K. MacManus, Primary Science Lead

    So what’s the challenge?

    Pupils learn about the varying needs and wants for electricity amongst a community living in a village in Gwanda. They include a teacher wanting lighting in her school, a nurse wanting a refrigerator to store vaccines at her clinic and family farmers wanting solar water pumps to help irrigate their crops.

    Their main challenge for pupils is to make recommendations on the best use of electricity to help meet the needs of the community generated from a limited supply of solar cells. To help pupils do this the education material includes access to simple spreadsheets and energy appliance cards (with information about their energy use per hour/day).

    The Solar Challenge can be used by teachers and schools in a number of ways, including as part of STEM lessons, as a curriculum enrichment day and for pupils to gain a CREST Award.

    To support the making of electrical circuits,  Practical Action have teamed up with TTS suppliers who have developed a bespoke ‘Solar Challenge Kit’ and/or the option to source solar cells.

    Off-Grid! Design Competition

    Building on the pupils learning and experiences of the challenge, Practical Action is running a design competition. Running until the competition deadline on 14th June 2019, pupils have the opportunity to develop their ideas for an ingenious solar-based solution to a number of scenarios/problems identified within the challenge.

    To download the FREE materials both for the Solar Challenge and/or Off-Grid Design competition go to


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  • Support For Developing Countries – Great choice AQA!

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    June 20th, 2018

    At Practical Action we are delighted that the examination board AQA have included ‘support to developing countries’ as one of their recently released contextual challenges offered to GCSE D&T students.

    As an international development organisation with a focus on technology to address poverty, we are delighted that students have been given this great opportunity to complete an indepth project on such an important issue.

    As an ex D&T teacher, I would be tempted myself to spend some time browsing through Practical Action’s main website, which is full of inspirational stories of how peoples’ lives have been transformed through access to technology in areas such as Renewable energy, Water and sanitation and Food and agriculture.

    For those of you that like to find out more of the technical details behind the projects, we have a wide range of technical briefs and publications that provide technical information to support the international project work.

    Support for GCSE students

    As a starter activity I would be tempted to inspire them to choose a development context by running a mini hands-on STEM challenge this term. Any of the STEM Challenges are good, but the Stop The Spread and/or the Squashed Tomato challenges are most suitable for Yr10 students and quickly introduce them to how life changing technology can be.

    As for your students needing to identify particular clients and stakeholders for their product research and development, I’d suggest these top three FREE downloadable materials make good starting points on Practical Action’s School’s site.

    1. Global Goals – introduces the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (also known as Goals Global) that highlight a set of targets to reduce/end world poverty by 2030. Many of the Global Goals including Water and Sanitation, Climate Action, Sustainable Cities have targets whereby technology plays an important role.
    2. Global Project Ideas – a set of five sheets that set out some of the biggest global challenges and a wide range of issues/problems for which technology can play a significant role.
    3. Design For A Better World – a designed based activity enabling students to think of the technologies and product we need in the future to meet the Global Goal targets.

      Design For A Better World











    We hope these materials help you and your students to feel inspired to choose a development theme for their GCSE project. Please get in touch if we can be of further help

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  • Ditch the Dirt…a NEW STEM challenge

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    January 25th, 2018

    We think young people will love it!

    Practical Action’s latest Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) challenge ‘Ditch the Dirt’ offers a great opportunity for pupils to explore how simple water filtering techniques can remove so much ‘dirt’ from contaminated water.

    Set around the real-life context where millions of people worldwide don’t have access to clean and safe drinking water, Ditch the Dirt enables pupils to find out for themselves how science and technology can play a critical role in developing sustainable solutions to global challenges.

    Pupils start by exploring their own daily water use before learning about the challenges for many children and women in Turkana, Kenya to collect water from ground water holes, on average 3 miles from home.

    Pupils then learn about the impact on health of drinking ‘dirty’ water before researching and developing their own  ideas for ‘cleaning’ water and making it safe to drink.


    One of the primary science teachers involved in trialling the materials explains,

    ‘Setting these science investigations in a real-life context really motivated the pupils to develop the best filtering systems they could. It made the science relevant to them, they could clearly see how science can make a difference to peoples lives.’


    Ditch the Dirt can be used to gain the British Science Association’s CREST awards at both primary and secondary level.  To see which levels it can be used for, and to view our other popular STEM challenges accredited for CREST go to the CREST page on our website.

    We look forward to sharing stories from children and teachers who use the Ditch the Dirt challenge materials over the next months.

    Enjoy them and please share the link with your own contacts of  teachers and parents.

    The materials for Ditch the Dirt can all be found here. Ditch the Dirt.





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  • Supporting Food teachers with NEW resources…

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    August 10th, 2017

    When the specifications for the new GCSE Food Preparation and Nutrition courses were released last year, we were delighted by the inclusion of opportunities for students to learn about issues that very much reflect the broader debates around food in the world today. They include issues around sustainability, the environment and the pros and cons of different food production systems.

    Although the different examination boards have approached the subject knowledge and understanding of these topics in slightly different ways, at the core of all of the specifications are requirements for students to demonstrate their understanding of:

    Food Choice – including factors that influence why people eat the food they do, including economic, social, moral and cultural factors

    Food Provenance – including where food originates from and the impact of its journey throughout its whole lifecycle on local and global communities

    Sustainability of Food – including the challenges of how best we achieve food security (access to adequate nutritious and affordable food) in a way that is sustainable now and for future generations.

    At Practical Action we’ve enjoyed drawing on our experience of working to improve people’s access to food security globally to 
    develop a set of three FREE resources to support teachers and students with these topics.

    Each set of materials contains a Power Point presentation, student worksheets and links to video clips and other resources to support these units.

    We hope you enjoy using them…please feel free to share them with other teachers and trainers.



    We always welcome feedback, so please leave a comment or contact Practical Action’s Schools team directly

    Keep up to date with other new resources by signing up to our STEM Matters Schools e-newsletter.


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  • Smoky Homes offers an inspiring real-life context for the primary STEM curriculum

    November 30th, 2016

    If you were to ask a class of pupils ‘What takes more lives every year than malaria, AIDS and TB added together?’

    What do you think their answer would be? I’m guessing it’s unlikely to be household smoke. Yet every year this hidden killer takes the lives of over 4 million people, mainly children and women.

    Globally, more than three billion people burn wood, coal and other biomass as their only way to cook, boil water and heat their homes on basic stoves or three stone fires. The lethal fumes that are produced from these methods is the same as burning 400 cigarettes an hour.

    Through the Smoky Homes education materials pupils can learn about this global problem and attempt to address the question – How can we reduce the smoke produced and get it out of people’s home?

    Smoky Homes

    Find out more about us in Smoky Homes

    The Smoky Home starter activity introduces through the lives of two sisters living in Nepal whose family cook on an open fire. They have their own ideas on how they would like something better to stop them becoming poorly and their house dirty from the smoke.

    Through a set of science and technology investigation and research activities, young people can start to develop their own ideas and model solutions to address the problem. Some pupils might develop models of fuel-efficient stoves while others develop chimneys or stove hoods. Either way Smoky Homes offers a real-life problem and genuine opportunities for pupils to explore how simple solution can transform lives.

    At the end of their project, pupils have the chance to see some of the inspirational solutions that Practical Action are working on in Nepal.

    All the materials and activities for Smoky Homes are free to download.


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  • Pumpkins Against Poverty in Schools

    Rugby, Warwickshire CV22 5HN, UK, Rugby
    October 16th, 2015

    As many schools in the UK celebrate Harvest and World Food Day on the 16th October, we’re delighted to launch Pumpkins Against Poverty, a resource packed with cross-curricular ideas for primary aged children.

    Based on Practical Action’s work in Disaster Risk Reduction and Agriculture in Bangladesh, the education materials enables students to learn about the life of Jui, a seven year old girl whose family and land have been affected by flooding.

    Capture Jui






    Content of the materials

    The main activities that follow encourage children to understand how the science and skills of growing pumpkins on land that was considered infertile has transformed the lives of families like Jui’s. The activities include:

    • Exploring the lifecycle of a pumpkin and germinating seeds
    • Learning about the nutritional and health benefits of eating pumpkins
    • Designing and making of seeds packets

    All of the materials including the PowerPoint, poster and activity sheets are freely available to download on Practical Action Schools website.

    Pumpkins Against Poverty poster

    Pumpkins Against Poverty poster

    We hope you enjoy! Please let us know if you use the materials or would like a free A2 poster to support the challenge.

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  • New Plastics STEM Challenge…launched at the Big Bang Fair

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    April 2nd, 2015


    When I met with a group of D&T and Science teachers in the UK last year to explore which of Practical Action’s international projects would form the basis for our new STEM challenge…we were unanimous that our work in Nepal with waste collecting communities would make a great context for exploring some ‘big’ global issues with students.

    In Kathmandu, Nepal, poverty forces thousands of people, including children to make a living from collecting rubbish from the streets and/or sorting through that rubbish at waste tips to re-sell plastics, metals, etc. for reuse or recycling.


    Practical Action is working with these communities to enable access to safety equipment, and helping to provide education for children and adults, including business and enterprise training to help waste workers start or improve their own business.




    Plastics Challenge

    The new Plastics Challenge introduces students to the Nepalese context with a photograph based activity, highlighting the impact of waste materials on people and the environment both Nepal and the UK.

    The follow-on activities within the challenge raise students’ awareness that while people in Nepal are viewing waste materials as something of value, despite the availability of systems and technology to reprocess waste materials in the UK, huge amounts are still entering landfill causing huge environmental concerns for future generations.

    Every year in the UK alone, we produce 5million tonnes of plastic…75% of it end up in landfill.

    The investigative activities within the challenge enable students to explore a range of issues including the impacts of plastics throughout their life cycle, the efficacy of recycling and making and exploring the characteristics of bio plastics versus oil based.

    pc_web-images-pupilFollowing these activities, students are challenged to use their STEM and enterprise skills to develop ideas for solutions to some of the big impacts of plastics.

    The inspirational students and teachers in schools who’ve helped us trial the challenge have developed a fabulous range of ideas, including making products from bio plastics through to developing products from waste plastics to sell for enterprise.

    Launch of the challenge

    Bren 1 Facebook

    The students and teachers from Myton School and Redmoor Academy helped to launch the Plastics Challenge at the Big Bang event at the NEC last week.

    So now it’s there on our website for you all to use!

    We hope will enjoy the challenge.






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  • Design and Make the Future conference

    Bourton on Dunsmore, Warwickshire CV23 9, UK, Bourton on Dunsmore
    May 22nd, 2014

    I’m not sure if there’s a collective noun for D&T teachers…techies, geeks, designies? but just wanted to share with those of you who didn’t make this year, something of the buzz of the day when 120 D&T teachers get together.

    Organised by TeachDesign and the National Science Learning Centre in York, the day kicked off with a keynote from Mark Shayler the founder of Ape. He challenged and inspired us as a community to think about our work our responsibility as teachers of the future generations of designers and makers.




    AFFORD .


    USE YOUR CRAFT WELL’ Mark Shayler 2014

    Strong words…but resonated well with our work at Practical Action encouraging D&T teachers to choose real and relevant contexts for pupils and encourage teachers to encourage pupils to consider the impact of designer decisions. Our top 3 D&T resources to explore the responsibility of designers and to encourage pupils to think about what they make are;

    Roles and responsibilities of designers

    Belief Circles

    Technology: Needs and wants

    Following the keynote, there were sixteen different workshops running throughout the day with time for viewing the exhibition.

    We ran two workshops that offered teachers the chance to explore a range of real-life global contexts for designing and making based on our development projects.  Using images from our work in renewable energy, construction, transport, food and agricultural technologies, water and sanitation projects the teachers came up with an exciting range of project opportunities. The images are available here and are all supported with technical briefs that are great for GCSE and A level projects.

    We explored in more detail the context of construction in flood-prone regions through our Beat the Flood challenge, where teachers showed their true making skills whilst challenged with developing a structure to withstand flooding and strong winds.

    D&T conference York 3






    I was sorry not to have made it to the last keynote…we were busy dismantling our exhibition.

    Great day…lots of ideas for us to support you with more global contexts.

    If you can make the conference next year…I’d 100% recommend it!


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  • Inspired by the boys from Bohunt at the Big Bang

    Rugby, Warwickshire CV23 9QZ, UK, Rugby
    March 20th, 2014

    There’s been so much great work going on in schools during National Science and Engineering week…but the highlight for me has to be the Big Bang Fair.

    Held last week at the NEC, Birmingham, the event attracted thousands of students from primary and secondary schools all over the UK. Many students enjoyed the mix of hands-on Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) activities offered by companies, universities and professional bodies. In addition, students had the opportunity to view projects from schools who had reached regional finals for their inspirational science or technology based challenges.

    I was lucky enough to have met up with Alex, Duncan and Freddie from Bohunt School in Hampshire, who’ve been working on one of Practical Action’s Global CREST Challenges on the theme of Shelter.

    The students have been working on their project since last September as part of the school’s STEM club activity and work towards their Silver CREST award.



    ‘We started out thinking we’d like to design and make a garden shed…then we decided to focus more on an area of shelter which felt more worthwhile.’ Freddie

    ‘It’s been great transforming our ideas into reality’. Alex


    The boys carried out research into a range of emergency shelters that are used post-disaster before developing their initial design ideas for their own emergency shelter. Following feedback from Practical Action around their choice of building materials and size of the shelter the students refined their designs before developing their models and full-size shelter. Have a look at their inspirational work.





    It’s been good to get out of a classroom and put our skills into Practical Action’. Duncan


    If you’re interested in encouraging your students to look at real-life global contexts, then have a look at our Global CREST challenges and other STEM challenges in areas such as Disaster Risk Reduction, Energy, Water and Food.


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  • Beat the Flood challenge … a primary teacher promoting global learning in science

    December 3rd, 2013

    In the past few weeks, I’ve been visiting schools who are delivering Practical Action’s new Beat the Flood Challenge in exciting ways.

    My first visit was to Mugginton Church of England Primary School, Derbyshire, where science coordinator Christine Hunnicliffe ran the challenge as global theme day with her class of 22 pupils, aged 8-11.

    Firstly, Christine organised the class into mixed age groups of four children before she introduced the starter activities. They looked at a range of photos of people whose lives had been affected by flooding and placed them on a map of the world and discussed what it would be like to live in an area that flooded a lot.

    The children were then shown a map of Watu Island and learnt about the community that they were to be part of for their challenge. They learnt about the terrain and risk of flooding to the island community before thinking about the most appropriate location to develop their flood-proof houses on the island.

    ‘We are going to build our house half-way up the mountain away from the river, but not on the top where it might be too windy’ (Year 6 pupil)

    Using STEM skills to develop solutions

    After a break and a fire alarm test, Christine introduced the material testing activities, to test the absorbency and strength of modelling materials to help the children select the most appropriate materials for their house designs and models. It was great to see how the children used their test results later to decide which materials would be more and less suitable for their homes.

    Materials testing

    ‘The materials need to be strong and water-resistant – to make strong houses for our community’. 

    Learning from others

    Following their tests and discussion around results, the children spent time learning about features of flood-proof homes developed by Practical Action in Bangladesh. They feature on the Beat the Flood poster.

    Designing and modelling

    Based on their learning around materials and the needs of their community, the children developed their designs and models using the modelling materials that represented building materials.

    There was such a buzz in the classroom as the children worked in team to develop their homes. I found it fascinating that without exception all of the groups developed additional features such as zip wires, barriers around their homes, high places of safety, each demonstrating their wider understanding of flooding contexts and human needs.

    I’ve learnt that bamboo isn’t very absorbent – so we’ve used it a lot to make our house. It’s the best house I’ve ever made!’

    Sadly for me, the models needed to dry before the children carried out Beat the Flood test, where they placed their models in water trays and squirt them with water…but Christine reported that they loved it!

    If you feel as inspired as I did after visiting Muggington and you want to run your own Beat the Flood challenge as part of your formal Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths teaching or in STEM clubs or curriculum enrichment day, the material needed to run the challenge are free to download at

    The challenge is also being offered as a competition for key stages 2 and 3, which has prizes of £250 for winning schools and £25 vouchers for students. The deadline for entering pupils’ designs and photos of their models is 30th April 2014. Competition details.

    Beat the Flood is the first of a series of material to integrate global learning into STEM subjects. The project is funded by the European Union.

    EC flag

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