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Home truths in a push-button age

Entries to a science and technology challenge showed an alarming tendency to favour gadgetry over human solutions. Ian Nash reports. Out of the mouths of babes come comments which say more about the age we live in than all the slick and sophisticated press and media presentations can tell us. And the school subject areas which give us most insight into the politics of our age are science and technology. The subjects are beset with cultural traps into which innocents can so easily fall.

The quality of submissions to the 1995 Association for Science EducationDuracell Science and Technology UK Schools Competition showed an alarming tendency for pupils and students to fall into these traps, even though the consensus was that standards of ingenuity overall were extremely high.

There was agreement that work was to a higher standard than last year, with more willingness to explore creative solutions to a far wider range of problems and challenges.Also, there was a more acute business acumen. Many of the entrants had already promoted their ideas to local businesses and Training and Enterprise Councils, some had won development grants and even boldly proclaimed that they were applying for a patent.

But has this push been at the expense of what is surely the most crucial issue in science and technology? It is in the written evidence that truths are betrayed. For example one report began: "The demographic transition of our population is bringing socio-economic problems which we must face up to. " This was supposed to delineate the problems of old age - and we know them from so many recent official inquiries and reports: they include poverty, cold, mental decline and most of all loneliness and isolation. The answer? An automatic distress alarm.

Why some of the judges found this disturbing was that it and others fell at the first hurdle in defining what technology is. All solutions to technological problems are first and foremost human solutions. The device or gadget is only required if that avenue is fruitless.

One might argue that certain human solutions are unfortunately far too costly. If that is so, then the problem is one of politics, not technology. This message was clear from the very start of national curriculum technology when the Government's working party warned that the enterprise should not slip into slick gadgetry. Several similar devices fell at the same hurdle. That is not to decry the efforts of the pupils or students (who, after all, are anything but babes). But it raises the question of how far science and technology are being taught in the proper social context.

Last year, there was a preponderance of electronic tagging devices. This was to be expected, given the terrible abduction and murder of two-year-old James Bulger. The best of devices offered emphasised upper-most the need to balance freedom with control.

This year there was a range of technological solutions to everything from cot deaths to car thefts. There was a very ingenious way of automatically watering plants. Half of its success was in the report writing which presented a real problem of access and timing, identified the need clearly, explored the possibility of cheaper, non-technological solutions and - only when there was no alternative - set about finding a practical solution.

Some explorations into astronomy were extremely sophisticated, reflecting a passion for the subject (or hobby) in the author. Others ventured into the world of teaching aids, showing a practical application of the very problems that the pupils and students themselves had obviously encountered in their own schooling and an eagerness to take a more objective (and aesthetic) approach to the issues.

There was an electronic spirit level which at first sight appeared to be an expensive and unnecessary alternative to what was already available. As a prototype, it also raised questions about how feasible it was to make a full commercially viable working model. But the genius was again in the writing and presentation.The student clearly had a remarkable grasp of real problems which demanded this unique electronic solution. Moreover, the work also illustrated a thorough understanding of the basic craft of building - which is after all a fundamental part of the technology curriculum.

As with last year's competition, many were keen to find solutions to problems in the area of special needs. Laudable though this is, it is an area in which problems are handed to the student on a plate, and all to often they result in the least thoughtful or creative work. They are also too often the areas where glib gadgetry solutions are offered to problems which are social or political.

o The judges for the 1995 ASEDuracell schools science and technology competition were Maggie Hannon (chair), senior inspector for Liverpool education authority; Bob Symes, freelance writer, formerly with the Institute of Patenters and Inventors; Ian Nash, further education editor of The Times Educational Supplement; Martin Coleman, deputy director of the Technology Education Development Unit at the University of Salford and Terry Emery, School of Education, the University of Hertfordshire. Winners will be announced on July 10. Details of the competition from ASE, 01707 267411

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