Ace of clubs is on shaky ground

Girls' engineering team takes UK prize for ingenious design to combat earthquake damage. Jean McLeish reports

Jean McLeish

A canny jannie has helped six Highland schoolgirls take a top title to become Young Engineers Club of the Year - beating competition from 1,800 clubs across the UK.

Former joiner Eddie Malicki never throws anything out and when the young engineers are looking for parts and materials, he always comes up trumps.

The third-year girls used leftover wood, old pots and pans, bits of bikes and even a science teacher's old golf caddy to design and build earthquake-proof structures and systems to generate fresh water and electricity supplies in the aftermath.

Their models are beautifully crafted with ingenious creative features to overcome problems caused by devastation to homes and infrastructure. "I find the stuff for them - we recycle absolutely everything," says Eddie, who travelled to the competition final in Birmingham with the Alness Academy team and their teachers.

It's all been a bit much for 14-year-old Kayleigh MacDonald who's been left speechless, following her team's success. Kayleigh lost her voice after shouting to compete with the noise level at the competition, held during a three-day event which attracts more than 50,000 visitors.

Fortunately, her friends can more than compensate for her silence. "Winning is amazing," says Emma Roddick, 14. "We're still in shock," says her friend Cassie Armstrong, also 14, as they show off their work back at school a few days later.

Their school has two Eco-Schools Green Flags and is keen to reflect this ethos in their projects. "The judges liked it so much, because most of the other schools had bought in the equipment and we did it on a shoestring," says Alina Ballingall, the school's head of science.

The teenagers from the school's engineering club made a bridge, a green- powered house, a radio, an artesian well, steam pump and a wave machine to enable survival after an event like the Haiti earthquake.

They used old bicycle cables as stays for the bridge, a fish tank for the wave machine, half of an old cooking pot for the radio and an old coffee canister for a steam pump to produce fresh water.

They had embarked on the earthquake project last year during the school's Science and Engineering Week, a cross-curricular venture held annually for second years. Visiting Eco-Schools assessors were so impressed that they encouraged the girls to enter the Scottish competition for STEM clubs, organised by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

They won and were named Scotland's Young Engineers and Science Club of the Year, then went on to represent Scotland and win the UK final at the Big Bang Science and Engineering Fair in Birmingham.

"The girls were just so confident and knowledgeable about their particular branch of the project, but also helped each other as a team. They were so involved in the whole thing, they knew it inside out," says Alex Ferrie, principal teacher of geography and geology, who travelled to Birmingham with them.

Their MSP, Rob Gibson, tabled a motion of congratulation in the Scottish Parliament in recognition of their success and highlighting the role of Curriculum for Excellence in interdisciplinary work like this at Alness Academy.

The girls were introduced to Prince Andrew in Birmingham, after the judges were impressed with their skills and confidence in discussing the details of their work.

They researched the impact of the Haiti earthquake and the aftermath, investigating how they could make drinking water safe after the cholera epidemic. "We also looked into Haitian art and all the things they use in Haiti, like natural products and nearby resources, and built the house from them," says Meg Beattie, 15.

Janitor Eddie Malicki loves being involved: "We never got anything like this when I was at school," he says.

Lunchtime engineers set the scientific wheels in motion

It has been quite a year for these Highland schoolgirls, and for their teachers and school janitor who traipsed on and off four trains, helping to carry all their exhibits on a 10-hour journey to the competition nearly 500 miles away, in Birmingham.

The girls - Josie Tolliday, Emma Roddick, Cassie Armstrong, Meg Beattie, Holly Henderson and Kayleigh MacDonald - are all members of the school's lunchtime engineering club, which meets every Wednesday to work on projects.

Most of them are just 14 - and they've won this nationwide competition in a traditionally male-dominated field, in some cases, against teams of boys three or four years older.

Their teachers are thrilled - the girls speak confidently about what they've done and were articulate enough to wow the judges.

The girls are also interested in the possibility of careers in science and engineering.

"I want to go into the Navy and do marine engineering and naval architecture," says Cassie Armstrong. "My dad and my uncle are both engineers, so it came from them."

"I've always been interested in science and geography and this is both of them together," says Emma Roddick, who would like to work in the engineering field.

Headteacher Ken MacIver says the girls' success will be an inspiration to pupils across the school. "To win such a prestigious award is a tribute not only to the team and the staff at our school, but also to the wider community who have given support and encouragement.

"It is a very proud moment for us at Alness Academy and highlights all the good work that has been done over the years to ensure young people can learn about science and engineering in a creative way."

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Jean McLeish

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