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Engineers' hands-on advice from afar;FE Focus

Ionna Campbell concentrates hard as she is shown how to insert a circle in the clock face she is designing using computer software in her technology lesson.

Her instructor, who adjusts the radius of the circle, is not in her classroom but at nearby City of Bristol college, communicating via a video-conferencing link.

Fairfield grammar school in Montpelier, Bristol, is taking part in a pilot scheme with the new pound;1 million Engineering Skills Development Centre at the college, enabling video-conferencing to be used in Design and Technology classes.

Students can undertake computer design projects, using Millcam-Designer software with the guidance of teachers and college staff and download their designs to the centre for manufacturing. Pupils will be able to see and speak to the engineer, who can take control of the programme during the link and make modifications on-screen.

The software enables a milling machine to be used at the centre to cut out designs. The potential for three-dimensional models is also increased. Students can even watch their projects being machined - with materials which are not necessarily available at the school. Their designs will then be posted back.

Ionna, a Year 11 GCSE pupil, who plans to make her clock face from acrylic, said: "It's going to be a lot easier to make small things and quicker just to design and then cut" Linda Curtis, head of Design and Technology, believes that the scope for the inner-city school is now vast. The technology will shortly be used for Year 8 and 9 students as well as GCSE lessons.

"We have limited facilities here to do certain practical processes in school at the moment but this is going to widen the opportunities for our pupils," she said. "We can give them the chance to do things they couldn't do on site.

"We can also connect with other schools which are also using the same programme and find out what they are doing and how they are using it.

"There are endless possibilities. We want to widen to out to the rest of the school. Video-conferencing could be used for maths to connect to another maths department, or in languages, with the Bristol-Bordeaux link. The pupils could see and talk to the person they are going to visit" Mrs Curtis added that is may also allow students to study for A-levels in the faculty rather than going to other colleges in the city.

Fairfield grammar will book sessions with an engineer at the centre during lessons. Withywood and Nailsea secondary schools, near Bristol, are also taking part in the pilot scheme, in conjunction with Yorkshire-based company, Denford Ltd.

Fairfield , which received hardware from Hebron and Medlock Ltd in Bristol, already has strong links with the City of Bristol college, as pupils regularly visit the engineering centre.

The state-of-the-art Engineering Skills Development centre was launched last November and has a ComputerCNC machining workshop where the video-conferencing will take place.

Geoff Morgan, centre manager, said that the video-conferencing could ultimately be used for schools over a wide area and also provide companies with training for employees, where release of staff is often a problem. He said: "It is reversing a trend where there has been a lack of investment in engineering training. The potential for engineering has been realised and the centre as a whole is designed to meet the requirements of engineering technology into the next century" The centre is taking part in an event in connection with Women Into Science and Engineering (WISE) at the Bristol Exploratory in March. It will provide schoolgirls with the chance to sample different forms of technology including video-conferencing.

Eta De Cicco, senior programme officer of the National Council for Educational Technology, believes that video-conferencing will have a key role in the future.

The NCET's directory of desktop video-conferencing in the United Kingdom has 150 users - which are mainly secondary schools - and has the potential to expand even more, especially with recent Government interest.

She said: "The strengths are firstly language learning for schools and colleges where you can actually speak to someone who is a native speaker. On the collaborative side, if you have a teacher with specific expertise you can share this through video-conferencing.

"Also, for children's hospitals, it is a home tutor resource for kids who are sick, and enables them to be taught at home."

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