The Big Rig at 3 years old

This is the third March in a row that I have facilitated a low-carbon skills competition at the Big Rig, which makes the Big Rig 3 years old.


The Big Rig was one of Think Up’s first commissions, back in late 2009, and the first project that I saw from conception, through detailed design, and to facilitation, and even going on to make a short video about it (see link below). The brief was to create a two-day event for people not in employment, education or training designed to raise their awareness of the growing training and employment opportunities in the low-carbon construction technology sector. Our previous experience developing the Constructionarium had shown that transformative learning experiences can be effective in encouraging students to consider careers in construction. In those days we characterised these events as having a number of critical ingredients: excitement, reality, jeopardy and hands-on work. We used the same approach in developing a response to this brief.

Our idea was to create a two-day intensive learning event in which participants would be given a tricky design-and-build challenge that involved construction using low-carbon technologies (solar PVs, solar-thermal water heaters etc). Working in teams, the participants would have the chance to experience working with a range of these technologies; and alongside the hands-on activities, participants would meet people currently employed in the associated trades and representatives from local colleges who could provide training in the installation of these technologies. The intention was that over the course of these activities, a participant’s perspective may change with regards to the utility of these technologies, and the role that they could envisage for themselves in future installing them.

The brief we settled on was to challenge participants to build a low-carbon shower, fed by rainwater and powered by the sun. The idea was that they should be given all the necessary components, but that they should design the system themselves. The event would be a competition between two teams. The team with the hottest water at the end of two days would be the winners. To host this sort of hands-on learning we decided to create our own specially designed venue, called the Big Rig. The idea was to create a robust three-storey outdoor classroom in which participants could connect together all manner of pipes and electrical systems in 3D. This arrangement meant that participants could arrange their components in all manner of configurations. It also brought a sense of scale to the event, a factor we believed to be important in creating an exciting and memorable experience.

The first event of this kind was called ‘Low Carb at the Big Rig‘. It took place in March 2010 at the National Construction College, Newham, and was attended by 40 participants.   Click here for a video about the first event, and read more about Low Carb on the Think Up website. The first event was perceived to be a success by the commissioning organisation, a range of observers, and participants interviewed at the start and end of the project. Regrettably, no longer term learner evaluation process took place, partly because we were not able to have direct contact with the participants following the activities on-site. Nevertheless, we have been fortunate to be able to develop the Big Rig concept further for other clients.

In October 2010, the Big Rig appeared at the trade show Interbuild, in this instance as a venue for show-casing low-carbon technologies. In January 2011, the Big Rig took centre stage at the opening of a new construction centre in Walthamstow. This time the event was modified to allow it to be held indoors: bicycle generators replaced solar PVs and homemade bio-mass boilers replaced the solar-thermal panels. Here the participants were school children studying for the Construction and the Built Environment Diploma. In March 2011, the Big Rig moved to the College of North West London where it was one of the highlights of their Industry Day, designed to promote courses at the college. In this instance, the low-carbon shower challenge was run as a series of one-day heats held over the week leading up to a final competition between the two best teams. This time the Big Rig hosted a whole range of different groups of learners: school children, plumbing and electrical apprentices and professional tradespeople.

Last week, the Big Rig returned to the College of North West London for a repeat of last year’s event. See my next post for observations on the most recent event.

So what’s next for the Big Rig? Last week, watching people working away at their solar-powered contraptions, I was reminded just how an exciting learning format this is. Building on what we have, I think this format would be well suited to really exciting science experiments. I imagine a travelling version that could be taken to schools and used to inspire school children about science. And that’s just the start: there’s a whole host of ‘Scrapheap Challenge’ style events that it could be used for. The sky’s the limit…that and funding.