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Made to measure

A new resource pack aims to promote students' interest in metrology - a vital skill for budding scientists, designers and engineers. Laurence Pollock reports

Metrology - the science of measurement - isn't glamorous but without it the man-made world would be a precarious place. Scientists, engineers and designers rely on precise measurements to ensure that everything from the car you drive to any medical treatments you receive are safe.

Metrology equipment is essential for today's technology professionals, but for most schools things rarely get more sophisticated than a 30cm ruler. In an attempt to raise awareness and provide an opportunity to make maths relevant to the modern world, metrology packs have been made available nationwide for schools to borrow by a consortium of science and engineering organisations.

The packs, entitled Understanding Measurement with the Metrology Toolkit, were launched by science minister Lord Sainsbury after being piloted in Leicestershire schools. They are jointly sponsored by SETPOINT Leicestershire, the Gauge and Toolmakers Association (GTMA) and the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). Aimed at 11 to 14-year-olds, they are designed to encourage an awareness of how maths can be applied industrially.

The kit comes in a portable case stocked with micrometers, vernier callipers, steel rules and "gono-go" gauges. As well as these basic engineering measuring instruments, it includes a teacher's guide with instructions and documentation which links the kit to the numeracy strategy, teachers' notes and worksheets.

So how does the resource go down with the target audience at a time when enthusiasm for maths and engineering is waning? Tess Coll, a former teacher at Long Field High School in Melton Mowbray, was involved in piloting the package. This produced positive feedback with comments such as "it was fun to use", "different from what we usually do" and "interesting and useful for the future".

A few miles to the south-west, Sandra Stafford's Year 9 maths class at Crown Hills Community College in Leicester are equally positive about the kit and totally absorbed by it during a session. Tehzeeb Sattar is measuring a test block with a pair of vernier callipers. He is checking out one of the 50mm, 20mm and 10mm gauge blocks that come with the kit.

Classmate Arti Mistry uses an analogue micrometer to measure a nail. As the class explores and tries out the micrometers and callipers, Sandra is pushing home the message of measurement: "Think about the design of the instrument in relation to the task. What is the reason for the task and what is the real life-use?"

"With a normal ruler, we would get a very inaccurate measurement," says 13-year-old Tehzeeb. "The analogue tools give you one-tenth of a millimetre and the digital goes down to one-thousandth."

Sandra estimates that schools would need the kit for a couple of weeks so pupils could familiarise themselves with the tools. Crown Hills has used it with the top two classes in Years 8 and 9, and students in Years 10 and 11.

As well as introducing pupils to professional applications, the kit's creators have made it easy for teachers to use. Measuring nails and blocks may seem a million miles away from high-tech design offices, but the recent loss of Space Shuttle Columbia has demonstrated the high stakes involved in getting industrial stress and tolerance right. Maths is not just about equations but real lives in the real world. The Metrology toolkits are helping students discover that.

The Understanding Measurement with the Metrology Toolkit packs are being distributed to 25 SETPOINTs around the country. Volunteer engineers are available at some locations to demonstrate how the packs work. SETPOINT supports teaching science, engineering and maths and is part of the Science Engineering Technology Mathematics Network (SETNET). GTMA Tel: 01844 274222 Email: Tel: 020 7636 7705Email: Physical Laboratory

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