Start of main content

Because not all skills can be taught in a classroom

By supporting STEM events like FIRST® LEGO® League you’re giving children like the Penpol Pumpkins the opportunity to participate in life-changing experiences, grow in confidence and resilience, and find a passion for STEM.

FIRST® LEGO® League (delivered in the UK by the IET) provides children with a chance to participate in STEM activities that fall outside of the school curriculum, and gives them an opportunity to push themselves and build teamwork and leadership skills.

These events take time and money to put on however, which is where the IET Futures Fund comes into play.

Our IET Futures Fund funding enables pupils like those from Penpol School in Hayle, Cornwall, to take part in these kinds of competitions locally, often igniting a passion for STEM as well as helping them grow in confidence.

Jacob Woolcock, Head of Computing and Digital Learning at Penpol School has a passion for engineering and technology that he’s passed onto his pupils, and some of this stems from his own FIRST® LEGO® League experience.

“I took part in FIRST® LEGO® League as a teenager back in 2003 and it was such a fun experience. When I became a teacher here in Cornwall there wasn’t much activity around it, so when I received an email from the IET about reintroducing it across the county I signed up immediately!

FIRST® LEGO® League is life-changing, but these events don’t happen for free. Without the donations of individuals and companies it just couldn’t happen. By supporting these events you’re making this learning and life experience possible for thousands of children in the UK.  

“In my ten years of teaching it’s the most fun thing I’ve been involved with, because it’s structured in a way that it’s unstructured – the children lead and you just go along for the ride, providing support when needed. You go into teaching to make a difference, and this competition lets you sit back and think ‘this is what it’s all about.”

Going from strength to strength

When Jacob was approached about the relaunch of FIRST® LEGO® League in Cornwall a few years ago he jumped at the opportunity, not knowing where it would lead him and his school children.

The first year FIRST® LEGO® League returned to Cornwall (2020-2021 academic year) approximately 20 teams participated. This has now grown to over 65 teams signed up for the 2023-2024 year. FIRST® LEGO® League’s popularity in Cornwall has gone from strength to strength, just like the Penpol School pupils’ skills and confidence. 

In 2022, the team, named the Penpol Pumpkins, took their Innovation Project presentations and robot all the way to the Cornish and GB National Final. Sadly, they didn’t win any awards, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to try again the following year.

“As we left the final, one of the children asked me if he could take part again next year, which was followed by a gentle rumble of agreement by the other children and before we’d even got back to the coach I’d said yes.

“I thought they’d forget about it over the summer, but on the first day of term they were standing patiently outside of the computer lab at lunchtime asking if they could start working on their project,” Woolcock says.

“I can’t think of a single day since then where they haven’t been there, tinkering away on some part of their robot, researching ideas for their innovation project, emailing individuals and companies for support – including Jeff Bezos – or holding team meetings. Their success is a testament to their determination, enthusiasm and perseverance.”

Indeed, the ‘Pumpkins took home the First Place Project Innovation Award in the 2023 GB National Final for their work promoting food waste recycling across Cornwall, which also gave them an invite to the International Final in Boston, USA.

To participate, the team had to raise their own travel and accommodation costs and so began a whirlwind month of fundraising events. This included interviews on local radio and TV, giving out flyers and putting up posters across town. The pupils even organised their own music festival, ‘Pumpkin Fest’.

“The whole community got behind the ‘Pumpkins, it was amazing,” Woolcock enthuses.

They raised the necessary funds in just three weeks, and so the team flew to Boston, taking part in the FIRST® LEGO® League International Final, where they got to meet schoolchildren from around the world.

The Pumpkins came away with fourth place in the Core Values award category, with the team being recognised for their inclusivity, fun, teamwork, discovery, impact and innovation, but they also found time to participate in other activities while they were there.

“The Boston trip was a huge deal for all of them,” says Jacob. “For many it was their first time in America, even their first time on a plane. We packed as much as we could into our time there, including an animation workshop at the Apple Store, a visit to the AI Lab at the MIT Museum and a walking tour of the Boston Freedom Trail. I think they’re going to remember this for a very long time.”

Changing young lives

Most important, however, is what the children got out of taking part in the FIRST® LEGO® League competition itself.

“I could spend hours telling you about what each of the children have achieved, and the challenges they’ve overcome: it’s crazy how much they each got out of the experience,” says Woolcock.

“Each year they’ve faced major challenges, which would have broken me if I were in their shoes, but they picked themselves up and carried on – such resilience. Each challenge was another life lesson, and they’ve come out so much stronger on the other side.

“For example, one of the ‘Pumpkins was considered the quietest in the class. Seeing them stand up and question a judge’s scoring was amazing!

“Through participation in FIRST® LEGO® League, the children’s interpersonal skills have changed, their confidence has grown – their belief in themselves has changed dramatically, and they’ve done all this while being true to themselves and authentic. That’s really powerful.

“Just think about the thousands of children who’ve taken part this year,” he continues. “All of them will have gone on similar journeys to the ‘Pumpkin pupils, overcome challenges of their own and grown in a variety of ways.”

Inspiring the engineers of tomorrow

Woolcock also believes that all the children have a stronger interest in STEM thanks to the competition.

“They’ve had such amazing experiences and met such interesting people, such as their mentor, Chelsea, who’s an aircraft mechanic for the Royal Navy. They’ve learnt more about what they enjoy, and how varied engineering can be.

“I think probably two thirds of the team would consider a career in engineering as a result of this competition, while the others want to be inventors, computing teachers and scientists. This competition has allowed them to see that these jobs are possible for them.

“This is particularly important here in Cornwall, where a lot of jobs are within the tourist sector. They now realise they can be whatever they want!”


With special thanks to the Wates Family Enterprise Trust who provided funding for Penpol Primary pupils to first take part in FIRST® LEGO® League Challenge in 2021-2022