Robotic rubbish bins earn student top prize

Issue: Volume 99, Number 13

Posted: 14 August 2020
Reference #: 1HA9pd

Education Gazette sat down with Thomas James, the winner of the 2019 Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize, to talk about his design journey and future aspirations.

Year 13 student from Burnside High School in Christchurch says the devil is in the details when it comes to solving some of the world’s biggest problems – and he’s taking them on one rubbish bin at a time. 

Thomas James won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize for his innovative robotic design that helps older people and people with disabilities take wheelie bins to and from the kerb. 

The prize is awarded to a Year 12 or Year 13 student who has undertaken an outstanding science, technology, mathematics or engineering project. The prize is worth $50,000 to support the recipient’s tertiary education. 

Thomas intends to use this to support him through his tertiary study at the University of Canterbury, where he is set to study mechanical or electrical engineering.

A project two years in the making

After noticing his elderly neighbour and grandparents struggling with their wheelie bins, Thomas committed himself to designing a mechanical solution. 

The result is a robot that raises the front of a wheelie bin off the ground, wheels it to the kerb for emptying, and then returns it back to the house or storage space.

The design and build has taken Thomas two years and involved a lot of technology and design – neither of which are subjects he is studying at school. 

“I like to set out to solve a problem that I see around me. It’s a passion I have,” says Thomas.

“It was quite a long design process, thinking of ideas and then eliminating them and trying to find the best solution. You want to keep it as simple as possible, without too many moving parts.”

Talking about the process of trial and error, Thomas says the scientific method is extremely important and applicable to any type of problem solving. 

“You can apply that same philosophy of iteration, re-evaluation and trying to find the best solution, to lots of different things.” 

Support from teachers and industry invaluable 

Thomas says the support from teachers and industry has been invaluable to his project and his learning. 

“At school I do study the three main sciences. But I haven’t really taken digital technology subjects – I haven’t really had the need because it’s a hobby I enjoy in my spare time,” says Thomas.

He says it was especially cool to see teachers supporting his passion, even though he wasn’t in their classes. 

“I think it’s really awesome when teachers are so encouraging and open-minded, and give up their lunch times for you to go talk to them and ask questions – even when they don’t have the answers. 

“It’s just that recognition that even those who aren’t taking your subject, are still passionate about it.”

Thomas also reached out to industry for information on existing services, and advice on his designs – especially when figuring out which motors to use. 

“I think it’s just important to know that if you’re willing to ask, there’s always someone there who is willing to help you out.”

Making small changes to solve the big problems

Asked whether or not he has a specific passion point, Thomas says his interests are broad and he keeps a notebook of all the problems he sees. 

“I don’t think there’s a trend to them, but I think they need to start at the smaller scale.”

Linking back to his wheelie bin robot, Thomas says he likes to solve a problem that could have a flow-on effect to bigger issues. 

“If we can get people to use their waste management systems, that’s going to prevent their rubbish from ending up in the oceans. That small little thing right at the start, is helping that big idea of pollution and rubbish.

“I believe in stopping things at the source instead of looking at that big picture, where it gets really overwhelming.”

For other young scientists who have ideas but don’t know where to start, Thomas says “just do it”.

“Find what you’re passionate about, and just go searching, ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for help.” 

Maths and statistics teacher takes top prize

Dr Michelle Dalrymple, mathematics and statistics faculty head at Cashmere High School in Christchurch, is the 2019 Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Winner.

The first mathematics and statistics teacher to win the award, Michelle says her subjects are foundational to the rest of the sciences and it’s good to see the awards recognise that. 

Michelle uses engaging and novel ways to connect her students and other teachers into mathematics and statistics. Her nomination for the prize says her teaching stands out because it is strongly based on cutting-edge research, while maintaining originality, creativity and learning which is relevant and inspiring for her students.

“Maths has an extra layer of anxiety, and for students to be able to learn, they need to feel safe, they need to trust me, and enjoy being in a class with me.”

She says whanaungatanga, or teaching through relationships, is a crucial step towards building that trust and supporting her students to take risks, to make mistakes and to not give up. 

A self-labelled maths and statistics geek, Michelle says she loves the things that involve people and real-world applications.

“The ease is that those real-life applications can come through when you can tell those little stories, and show where the numbers are going – like the physics behind a really thrilling roller-coaster ride.”  

“Science helps us understand our world and beyond, and that’s got to be crucial. It’s so important for students to be mathematically, statistically, and scientifically literate so that they can make wise decisions, function, participate and contribute to society.”

Michelle’s $150,000 prize will go towards the rebuild of Cashmere High School’s mathematics and statistics block. 

2020 Awards

The 2020 Prime Minister’s Science Prizes application process opened Monday 3 August 2020 and will close on Friday 9 October 2020.

There are five prizes in total with a combined value of $1 million.

If you have any questions, contact Debbie at:

Find out more at: link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 8:19 am, 14 August 2020

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts