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Bridge over art and science

A course in product design engineering highlights the value of holding off on specialising too early. Douglas Blane reports

A course in product design engineering highlights the value of holding off on specialising too early. Douglas Blane reports

Art and science teachers don't often get together. But the artificial barriers between subjects are slowly coming down, says Williamwood High physics teacher John Honeyman, as he watches his new S4 pupils take part in a taster day for product design engineering at Glasgow School of Art.

"This kind of course - not that there are many - shows them it's worth carrying on with their studies in science and art, rather than specialising too early in just one of them. The creative side of science is important. Without that we don't move forward."

An innovative collaboration between Glasgow University and Glasgow School of Art, the product design engineering degree course turns out highly employable graduates. Analysis is essential, the art school head of department Craig Whittet explains, but excellence in design is about more than mere numbers. "If the product is not a joy to use, it will become yet another obsolete item."

The joy this year's crop of graduates take in their creativeness was apparent in both their school outreach and their degree show, a guided tour of which occupies one half of today's workshop. "This is one everybody loves," graduate Lynsey Weadon tells the pupils following her around the wide-windowed space, with its well- postered stands and showcased prototypes.

"It's a bit of a boy's toy that lets you climb up walls using suction pads on your hands and stirrups for your feet. The designer, Ronan McAllister, has climbed the walls in this building with it. So it is effective."

As the pupils exchange glances, clearly wondering when the suction backpack will hit the shops, Lynsey leads them to the next stand, with a product that is just as elegant, less fun perhaps, but more useful for young mums. "We've all seen them struggling up and down steps with babies in push-chairs," she says.

"My design is for a ramp that fits on to a chair at the correct angle and creates a smooth path from one step to another, controlled by the user. It takes away the bumps and makes it an enjoyable experience for parent and child."

Other novel designs, demonstrated to the pupils, include fun physiotherapy for kids with disabilities, a wristband to stave off panic attacks and a skateboard that takes you up hills as well as down.

There are new products for sport, energy, film-making, agriculture and the environment. No fewer than a dozen prototypes are aimed at helping people with health problems, which says something about what drives this year's crop of graduates - described by Mr Whittet as "the most competitive group of students, with a strong appreciation of their intellectual property".

That is one aspect of their motivation but there's more to it, says new graduate Adina Roth. "We have a drive to do the best we can, but we also look out for each other. We worked together to organise these workshops for pupils - three this week.

"It's difficult for kids to see what we do here, if they only come and look at the products at the degree show. That's very much the end of it for us. Most of the time on the course we are cutting, sticking, modelling, testing, trying out ideas and working in teams."

Getting a handle on all that occupies the other half of the two-hour workshop, with pupils working together in small groups to design a device, using simple materials like card and Sellotape, that would let a fresh egg to be dropped from a height of six feet without breaking.

A plethora of parachutes, struts and crumple-zones means every group gets the job done. But good design is about more than making something work, so first-year tutor Ben Craven studies them all and selects a winner that has both elegance and economy, as well as an unbroken egg inside.

The workshop aims to expose pupils to real-world problems and ways of tackling them, says Dr Craven. "Product design engineering is about putting people in situations where no one knows what to do. I usually organise the outreach for this course, but the students came to me this year and said they wanted to do it themselves. They're a very enterprising group of young people.

"I have a fair bit of outreach experience, working with Glasgow Science Festival to take science shows into schools. So I put the students in touch with the festival, so that our workshops could become part of their schools programme. They then worked together to make this happen."

The pupils heading back to school are impressed with what has happened in the workshop, they say.

"The designs are brilliant, really clever," says Daniel Moffat from Williamwood High, East Renfrewshire. "I liked the innovative way they brought different things together that you wouldn't normally think of - like a motor on a longboard. I enjoyed getting into the minds of the people who designed these things."

"I didn't know you could do a course like this," says schoolmate Sally Ferguson. "It sounds really good. Art is my favourite subject but I also like physics, which is unusual, I guess. I enjoyed being put in a group with people you didn't know and learning to work together. It's not something you do a lot of in school."

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