Based in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales (Australia), the StarLAB is the flagship product of Obelisk Systems, which is an education and embedded systems company founded in 2016.
The StarLAB is a complete STEM teaching solution for Year 9 and 10 students in Australia, and includes all the hardware, software and online resources required to engage students with robotics, coding and computer programming. The StarLAB’s online lessons, professional development resources, and the annual Rover Challenge are all built around its sensors and expansion boards. We caught up with Obelisk Systems’ electrical and marketing engineer, Clinton McKinnon, to find out more about this clever company.
The StarLAB is such an innovative idea. How did it all begin?
The StarLAB is the product of four friends who set out to make a 'cool piece of tech' and along the way it developed into a full STEM education platform for students of all ages.
The StarLAB is a coding and sensor platform that lets students explore the world through a wide variety of sensors. Students are taught to code the StarLABs sensors, and as they learn to code, they can observe physics in real time, and eventually, with the rover expansion, use those observations to design an autonomous vehicle. This may sound very complicated, but the support materials were designed with teachers in schools, so anyone can teach STEM with StarLAB right out of the box – we even mapped out materials to the NESA-approved iSTEM curriculum!
As we further developed the API, we came up with a few unique tools that used the wireless networking available in our hardware. This included a feature we’ve dubbed “multiplayer programming”, which allows multiple students to code on the same hardware at the same time, from their own computers.
What a fantastic idea. It’s so exciting to think about kids learning actual skills they can use in real life! How long has StarLAB been up and running?
The StarLAB program has been running for around seven months (a year if you include the beta testing school phase), but for a young system it’s growing really fast. In fact, since our product launch in February 2017, more than 50 schools and in excess of 1,000 students across Australia have been having fun with the StarLAB program.
That’s a great achievement in such a short period of time. Run us through who’s behind this success.
So I, Clinton, am the head of marketing, and the company’s chief enthusiast about STEM and the StarLAB – if given the chance, I will talk your ears off about anything STEM-related! Occasionally, I also put my recently obtained electrical engineering degree to use by writing apps.
Luke is the architect of the StarLAB platform. He has an uncanny ability to predict a request and have it completed two weeks ago! Luke is most famous at the StarLAB for adapting the platform to scratch in a weekend (because someone asked if he could), and designing the amazing MK2 Rover in just over a week.
Lewis is the official voice of the StarLAB, so when you play one of the videos in our lessons, you’ll hear his dulcit tones! Not just a smooth set of vocal cords, Lewis also writes the firmware for the StarLAB, and has appointed himself the master of quality control for the online lessons.
Andreas is the official mouthpiece for Obelisk Systems. He talks to the very important folks like government, business leaders, and teachers about the benefits of STEM and how they can help the StarLAB provide Australian students the 21st-century skills they’ll need to thrive when they leave school and enter the workforce.
Levi is our resident physicist, computer engineer and master of online lessons. He spends his days creating lessons that use coding, to teach students STEM skills by creating examples that challenge them to explore the world, and intuit the physics and maths behind what they are doing.
As a passionate team of engineers and massive nerds, we’ve all had a long time a love of STEM. Obelisk Systems began with dreams of space and robotic arms, but the market was still in its infancy. In his honours project, Andreas had proposed an educational satellite that a student could code on. After some initial market research it was found that the educational robotics industry was not short on gimmicks, but it lacked products that actually taught the fundamental skills needed in the STEM workforce. So they teamed up with RDA Hunter’s ME Program to make a sensor and robotics platform that would not only inspire students to code, but teach them the STEM skills that we love and use everyday in our roles as engineers.
You guys are a living example of a small team achieving big things. What are the core principles behind your program?
The core principal of the StarLAB is that STEM is not four (or five in the case of STEAM) subjects, but one integrated subject. The truth of STEM is that without all of the elements you can’t understand how any one of them work. StarLAB teaches STEM as a single subject, meaning at no point will you find yourself asking “why am I doing this?”, because you can see and interact with it in a real and physical way.
Sounds like a surefire recipe for success for StarLAB students. What milestones has the program achieved so far?
Our biggest milestone so far was the launch of the StarLAB platform in February. At that point in time, we had around 20 teachers attend our launch party, which was held at a small room at The Stadium in Newcastle (we weren’t in the actual stadium – maybe one day). Then in May, we had the rover launch, at which point students could start driving the StarLAB around. Our next big milestone will be in November at the ME Program Mars Rover Challenge, which will see students from around Australia compete to code the best autonomous rover.
In terms of official recognition, we took out top honours in the NBNco grant, and have also received grants from Beyond Bank and the NSW Department of Industry – the latter even sponsored us to attend CeBIT this year, which was so much fun.
That’s really impressive. What’s your ultimate goal for the StarLAB program?
We want to give students the skills they need to excel in their own professional lives, and to develop the confidence to try and make the world a better place. We want to help teach them that if they don’t succeed the first time then they can dust themselves off, get up, adjust their plan, and try again.
It sounds like the youth of today are in good hands when they become involved with the StarLAB. What else do you guys have up your innovative sleeves?
We’re always working to improve and expand our platforms, but lots of those plans are far too secret to talk about yet! The biggest new thing we’re currently working hard to develop are training courses for teachers, and a coding club that will give students a chance to come and code with the engineers from our team. We’re also working on two hardware expansion products: the first of which will allow students to design their own electronic circuits, and the second will give the StarLAB an interface with the Arduino platform.
Some people see STEM and robotics as “skills for tomorrow”, but we don’t really like that perspective because people are often doubtful of things that try to predict the future. The reality is, there are STEM and robotics jobs available right now, and so our goal is to help ensure that today’s kids don’t miss out on these current opportunities to enjoy the fun of the already changed world.