Clever ideas that click

An initiative to promote science and technology in primary schools is producing inventive entrepreneurs, writes Douglas Blane.

Having an idea is the easiest part of inventing. The hard part comes when the cherished brainchild has to be delivered safely into the world and left to stand on its own. That's when most of them fall down. Many of us would then abandon them, but not those primary children chasing the Be An Inventor Challenge trophy.

The challenge, organised by Glasgow Science Centre, is for P4-P7 pupils to invent a product which has the potential to be sold in the marketplace. Along the way to devising something new they learn about scientific processes and product evaluation.

"We had lots of ideas before we decided on this one," said the team that took first prize this year, a group of P7 pupils from Donibristle Primary in Dalgety Bay, Dunfermline.

"There was the doorbell for the deaf, but when we looked at the Patent Office website it had been invented already.

"There was the slidey-cam," said the boys, pointing to a diagram of a camera with drastically altered controls that forms part of the impressive display behind their stall. "But we'd have had to slice the top off a camera to add the new bits and our teacher wasn't happy about volunteering hers."

Eventually the team hit on the concept of a mechanism to adapt any camera for left-handed people, which won pound;1,000 for their school.

A similar story of lots of ideas whittled down to one was told at all 15 stalls set up by the regional winners who converged on the Glasgow Science Centre for the national finals in June.

Furthest travelled was the group from the enterprising Portree Primary in Skye. Their plan to make little packets of potato crisps flavouring to solve the problem of less popular lines exceeding their sell-by date impressed the judges and won third prize of pound;250 for their school. (Last year the school scooped the trophy.) Most environmentally friendly was the group from Gateside Primary in Beith, North Ayrshire, who were so concerned about the problems posed to birds, fish and small mammals by the plastic holders on multipack drinks cans that they devised an elegant modification to let trapped wildlife escape unharmed. They took second prize of pound;500 for their school.

Other entries included: l an electronic device which shows drivers the spaces in busy car parks, from Seaview Primary in Monifieth, Angus; l a combined umbrella and walking stick, designed with the elderly in mind, from Shawlands Primary, Glasgow; and l the saucepan which delivers precisely timed boiled eggs by lifting them out of the water and then keeping them warm in the steam, from Luthermuir Primary in Laurencekirk, Aberdeenshire.

The most striking features of the finalists' entries were the depth of the children's research, the quality of their written and visual work and the confidence, maturity and persuasiveness they displayed whenever anyone asked them about their inventions.

The judges had a painful time separating the contenders, and the Science Centre made the point that all the children were already winners, having been selected as best in their region, for which each group picked up a cheque for pound;250 for their school.

The quality of the idea is one of the criteria the judges use to select the winners but not the most important one, explains GSC's business programmes co-ordinator, Joe McGrath. "It counts for 20 per cent of the marks. Then there is 60 per cent for the development of the idea and another 20 per cent for the marketing."

What this means is that the project can be used by class teachers as a focus for delivering various aspects of the 5-14 curriculum, including science, enterprise education, technology and education from work.

Schools are given considerable latitude in organising a project, and the variety of strategies used this year included whole-class co-operative efforts and small groups working separately and competing against each other. At Donibristle Primary, the P7 youngsters were given just one week on the project, from beginning to end, by their demanding teacher, Joanne Hughes.

It sounds almost impossible and before the winners were announced the boys were overheard complaining how they would have liked much more time. However, the tight deadline was deliberate, said Ms Hughes, and designed to focus their efforts and make conditions as typical of industry as possible.

"The youngsters were able to achieve so much in such a short time partly because we foster self-confidence right through the school and partly because we now teach the senior pupils enterprise education for an hour every week. I think it's a wonderful way to teach across the curriculum.

"Children today often give up if they can't see an obvious answer. Their lives are so fast-paced that they expect things to come to them instantly. But our Primary 7s now know that if an answer isn't there immediately you can work at it, try something else and eventually it will come.

"I think that's a great life skill they have learned. It's a skill we can and should be teaching in schools and events like Be An Inventor help greatly by providing the motivation."

TAKE UP THE CHALLENGE

The Be An Inventor Challenge 2003 will be launched on September 19 at the presentation of the World Intellectual Property Organisation Gold Medal to this year's winners from Donibristle Primary in Dalgety Bay.

Once schools have registered with the Glasgow Science Centre, they will be sent a Be An Inventor pack, followed by details of a free local workshop for participating teachers, a visit from an enterprise education support officer and possibly guidance available from local engineers and inventors. Projects should be submitted by March 31 for judging.

For more information and to register, contact Joe McGrath at the GSC, tel 0141 420 5010 ext 267, e-mail joseph.mcgrath@gsc.org.uk, www.unclejoe.pwp.blueyonder.co.ukInventorBeAnInventor.htmlwww.beaninventor .com

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