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Intelligent ideas

The Sustainable Design Award is challenging students to broaden their thinking in a bid to create products that meet people's needs in developing countries. Sarah French reports

When it came to finding materials for a design project, Emily Cummins looked to the hills around her school, set deep in the Yorkshire Dales. The 18-year-old was searching for a substance to help her achieve her goal - a method of cooling. The sheep grazing in the fields provided the perfect solution. "I needed something that was recyclable, but also readily available and wouldn't damage the environment, and we've got lots of sheep around here," says Emily.

The wool is an integral part of a sustainable fridge she has designed and manufactured. Water pours into a reservoir at the top of an aluminium cylinder and seeps down into the sheep's wool. Holes covered in wire mesh in an outer container allow the air to flow through, causing the water in the wool to evaporate and thus create refrigeration. The design is Emily's entry in this year's Sustainable Design Award and follows the water carrier she designed and made last year which won her the overall national Sustainable Design Award for 2004.

Then she was one of just five students at South Craven School, near Keighley, to be entered for an award. This year, 20 of her peers are hopeful of being among the 750 nationally who are expected to qualify for awards.

The growth of the Sustainable Design Award follows a pilot in nine schools three years ago. Run by Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), it brings the issue of sustainability into the existing DT ASA2-level curriculum requirement of designing and making a product. In meeting the criteria to achieve an award - which is an added bonus for students' CVs - they have to consider in greater depth the resources they use and how they use them. Ian Capewell, education officer with ITDG, explains: "At each step, students must think about how to use resources more thoughtfully so they are not contributing to poverty or using resources that are already in short supply and that might not be available at all in the future.

"It might mean using recycled materials, reducing environmental impact by employing renewable energy sources in the manufacturing process, or by thinking how their product could be economically or socially more sustainable, both now and for future generations."

Past entries have included a garden seat made from a recycled school science desk and a lamp and stand made from recycled materials, including a saucepan lid and a shower-curtain pole. Students are encouraged to investigate websites for ideas, and the ITDG website has 20 examples of projects on which they can base their design.

One is a container for a paravet - the equivalent of a paramedic for animals - in which drugs, syringes and bottles can be stored. Matthew Pennick, aged 17, has developed a lidded box made from polystyrene, contained in a waterproof bag that sits inside a basket made from steel rods. The choice of materials was a process of elimination, he says. "I needed materials that were light, but had good impact-resistance and were waterproof, but not too expensive. In countries like Kenya there are scrapyards that recycle vehicles, so metal is readily available."

He says he has taken a lot from the experience. "Looking at recycled materials is part of the syllabus, but it's the first time that I've used them as part of a project. It's made it much more interesting."

However, he has not produced his paravet in a vacuum - vital to its development has been the regular communications he has had with ITDG during the design process.

Students at South Craven also have links with Loughborough University and the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, which provide experience and advice they can draw on.

ITDG actively encourages such partnerships. "We want to see a more collaborative approach, whereby students work with people to address specific design issues," says Ian Capewell."With the paravet, for example, we may send their designs to one of our seven country offices where people on the ground can assess the designs and give feedback on which is likely to be the most effective."

Meeting a specific need inspired South Craven student Cyndi Moyo, who comes from Zimbabwe, to develop her simple-looking, but complex-to-design product for measuring flour. "Weighing and packing flour by street vendors in third-world countries can be a highly inefficient process. I wanted to design something that would make it easier and help small enterprises to make more money," she explains.

The idea of "design with a purpose" is winning fans among students and teachers, who say it enriches learning. Phillip Moss, an engineering teacher at South Craven, says: "It brings the political debate right on to the table in front of them. They have to think where things come from, where they are going to, and it stimulates some great debates. You see a different side to the students, their individuality really shines through."

At Bulmershe School in Woodley, Wokingham, design and technology teacher Liz Cook says the awards are the missing "intellectual piece of the jigsaw" that has altered the whole structure of teaching design and technology.

"We used to find a product that could be improved in some way, based on function; now we look at how to make a product more sustainable in the method of production, the choice of material selection and its longevity in planet terms. That's the key difference in sixth-formers' thinking," she says.

Previously contrived designs have been replaced with products which offer real social benefits, such as a swimming aid for young children. "It makes the students' research more relevant and makes them more globally aware, so they question why a product is like it is and its purpose. It's harder to teach, because it produces a broader range of design problems, but it's much more rewarding for everyone," adds Liz.

It's a feeling echoed at South Craven. Advanced skills and product design A-level teacher Wendy Banks, who is also a trainer for ITDG, admits that being involved in the award creates more work, but agrees that it's worth it.

"Doing the award alongside the main syllabus really makes students think.

It also helps to develop their skills in interpreting a brief laid down by someone else. And if it means we are turning out young people who are going to bear these issues in mind in the future then it's got to be a good thing," she says.

Achieving an award, which comes in the form of a certificate, depends on an assessment by the teacher of each design against the ITDG criteria. Since launching the scheme, ITDG has been delighted with the standard of designs.

Ian Capewell says: "We have been amazed by some of the levels of understanding some of the students have displayed in their folder work; I would say some is even of degree standard. We've also seen some cracking examples of teachers inspiring their kids, and it's clear that sustainable issues are central to students' thinking in many cases.

"We'd like to see that develop because we don't actually want there to be a sustainable design award - we want these principles to be a given in all school design and technology lessons."

* Sustainable Design Award

* Intermediate Technology Development Group

* Centre for Alternative Technology

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