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Have you ever considered what the world would be like if we were unable to understand and produce models? Imagine having to find your way from Heathrow Airport to the Design Museum by rail without a model - a map - of the network of the London Underground System. How would we cope if the network was only described in words?

Imagine a company trying to design and produce garments without using sketches and patterns, or industrial designers and engineers trying to design a new railway carriage without sketches, "3-D" computer models, scale models, mathematical models and engineering drawings - let alone trying to communicate their ideas to clients and users. Modelling is described as the language of designing since it is the way design information is communicated.

Modelling of all types, including modelling in the mind, plays an important role in design and technology. But particularly useful, and somewhat underrated, are 3-D sketch models - quick models made from any readily available material such as card, wire, wood, fabric or clay that enable initial ideas in the mind to be produced in a 3-D form either full size or to scale. Such models are often used by professional designers, yet undergraduate industrial designers are often reluctant to use them to supplement their sketching. However, in my experience, once students produce a quick 3-D sketch model, new ideas rapidly flow - and clients are better able to understand what the designer is proposing.

If 3-D sketch modelling works for professional designers, then it is likely that pupils with little experience of designing and limited skills in drawing will find it helps them to generate ideas and communicate more innovative yet practical solutions.

Modelling is a key area for research at the Design Education Research Group at Loughborough University where I am currently involved in a pilot study with Professor Ken Baynes and Krysia Brochocka looking at 3-D sketch modelling in secondary schools. The research is initially looking at both the extent to which 3-D sketch modlling is currently used by key stage 3 pupils and also, when it is used, the benefits perceived by both pupils and teachers.

If the benefits are found to be significant, we will work with teachers and pupils to produce teaching and learning materials to help pupils, initially in KS3 and 4, to produce and use 3-D sketch models as a design tool alongside other modelling techniques, such as drawing and computer modelling. As other forms of modelling become available in schools, such as virtual reality and rapid prototyping, the value of these techniques for students will need to be investigated.

In working with primary teachers and KS1 and KS2 pupils, Professor Baynes has developed "ways of talking" that help us to be aware of our ability to "see in the mind's eye" and to make use of sketch models for developing ideas (see box).

At a basic level such questions encourage children to think about thinking and to be aware of their ability to imagine and visualise, that is, model in the mind as well as by using 3-D models.

I would be pleased to hear from any teachers who would like to be involved in the research or who would like to pass on their experiences and views of the use of models in Damp;T.

John Smith is head of the design and technology departments at Loughborough University. Tel: 01509222660. E-mail:


* When you listen to a story, do you imagine pictures of the people, places, and objects inside your head?

* Can you do the same when you think about something you want to make?

* How can you share with me what you see in your head? Talk about it? Do a drawing? Make a quick model?

* What would be the best way to share your ideas? l What could a drawing do that talking could not? What could a model do that a drawing could not?

* Is the model exactly like what we want? Can we improve it by changing it? does changing it improve the idea in our own head as well?

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