CBeebies animated series Bitz & Bob is a comedy adventure with a twist: combining funny and inventive stories with key principles of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) it aims to encourage preschoolers to get involved in crafting, engineering, experiments and exploration.
The 44-part series of 11 minute episodes follows the colourful and fun antics of passionate inventor and creator, eight year-old Bitz, her energetic and enthusiastic younger brother Bob and their toy friends: Bitz's bestie, ardent seamstress Purl, practical jokers Zip & Pop, and high-octane action figure Bevel, voiced by US comedian and actor Rob Delaney in his first major animated voice role.
In their amazing Treehouse maker-space playroom, Bitz and Bob use anything they can lay their hands on to create magical little worlds where their toys and creations come to life. A sheet over a chair becomes a Faraway Island; boxes, bottles and recycled objects make an awesome, sophisticated Craft City; a giant sandbox transforms into a Big Sandy Desert.
These and many more vivid and colourful locations provide the perfect backdrop for adventures - which never quite go according to plan! But just when disaster seems unavoidable, the inventive and resilient Bitz uses her remarkable 'Engineer-o-vision' goggles to analyse what has gone wrong and visualise a solution. Inspired to re-invent, fix and create something new, Bitz blitzes the problem and saves the day!
Bitz & Bob isn't just fun, colourful entertainment for preschoolers, or even merely a great way of encouraging children to be enthused and excited about STEAM subjects. The programme has a self-confessed ambition to inspire the next generation of engineers and increase the numbers who choose to pursue a career in these industries - especially women, who currently make up less than 10 percent of the engineering workforce.
Vanessa Amberleigh, the BBC's Executive Producer on the series, says: "I really hope Bitz & Bob will inspire children to get crafting and experimenting with engineering principles. In years to come, if a famous engineer says they were inspired by watching Bitz & Bob, I would be thrilled - doubly so if the engineer is female!"
It's a mission that is sorely needed, especially in the UK where there was a reported 55,000 shortfall of people with the necessary STEAM skills in 2015. And the deficit is increasing: up 15,000 on the previous year. It represents a serious threat to the UK's engineering industry and to the economy as a whole.
Series consultant Helen Heggie is Owner of STEMFirst, an educational consultancy specialising in the industry. She says: "We've got a huge problem in the UK regarding getting girls progressing into science and technology. The UK is 28th out of the 28 countries in the EU for women in STEM; we couldn't be any worse.
"I find it so frustrating that although we've been talking about science and technology, engineering and maths as a country for many years now, unfortunately the numbers of young people, and especially girls, that are progressing into these jobs is still really very poor. We need to do something to increase those numbers tenfold - a hundredfold - across the country."
Bitz & Bob, which puts engineering principles at its heart while being the kind of colourful and humorous show that appeals to preschoolers, aims to be one catalyst that stimulates interest in these areas. Providing multiple fun along with persuasive reasons to break down barriers, it hopes to encourage young children - especially girls - to get more involved and to think differently about engineering.
Helen Heggie says: "Programmes like Bitz & Bob really help girls see that STEM is for them by having very identifiable, empowered role models that young children want to emulate. Society as a whole tends to give contradictory messages that STEAM is not what girls should be doing. We want to break down those misconceptions in both children and their parents so that the kids are retaining their natural problem-solving skills and inquisitiveness. We need those skills to be harnessed, developing them into our engineers and scientists of the future."
The story worlds in the series, from the Maker-Space Treehouse to Faraway Island and Once Upon A Time Castle, will spark interests in a non-traditional subject through more traditional and relatable storytelling that has huge appeal. Bitz's unique 'Steam Pink' style shows being an engineer can be cool - an important message for girls, because while there is now very little gender difference in take-up of and achievement in core STEM GCSE subjects, a mere 15.8 percent of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female. And although students of both genders express similar desire to work in engineering and technology, only 51 percent of the women graduates in 2014 compared to 68 percent of the men went on to do so.
Helen Heggie continues: "We need to make young women realise that it is for them - and that actually, this is where the highly paid jobs are. Statistics estimate that 60 percent of young people who are currently in schools will be doing jobs that are not invented yet because technology, maths and science is advancing so quickly. So we need to encourage them, make them see that maths and science is everywhere but also make them realise that those jobs that they will be going in to is where the world is going to. It's that cutting edge, that new stuff."
Encouragingly, a survey of 300 female engineers showed that 84 percent were either happy or extremely happy with their career choice; and with engineering students second only to medics in securing full-time jobs and earning good salaries, it should be possible to convince women that a career in the STEM industries can be satisfying and rewarding.
Yet according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, by age six girls are less likely than boys to believe their own gender is the most brilliant. Alice Webb, Director BBC Children's, says: "Anybody can do it and one of the things that we've all got to do as grown-ups is make sure that we don't introduce limits, either overtly or covertly, for children. They believe anything is possible."
Helen Heggie adds: "It's also very important to get the influencers in their lives interested as well. If a girl goes home and says, hey I met an engineer today and she was really cool, her parents should be encouraging. So we need to be getting to those influencers and the young girls at the same time and opening their eyes to what is out there."
And projects are missing out on female perspectives and approaches. Helen Heggie says: "Science and engineering is everywhere. It's in cosmetics, music, our social lives, in vehicles, in our homes, so we need everybody within our population to be contributing to how those things are made. If 50 percent of our population don't have a say in whether something is fit for purpose, then how can products or systems be suitable for all of us?"
Alice Webb concludes: "It's really important that girls are fired up about STEAM subjects because otherwise they are closing themselves off to lots of opportunities that they might have in the world."