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Moulding their futures

Ann FitzGerald explains how an engineering factory helped juniors build their own working machines.

How many top juniors could talk confidently about raw materials, injection moulding or quality control, or know what a Cartesian robot or an ultra-sonic welder was? Come to that, how many juniors have "clocked on", had their card stamped or received a "pay packet" and calculated deductions for tax and insurance?

This is now familiar territory to Years 5 and 6 of Topcliffe Junior and Infants School in Birmingham's Castle Vale district, where a lively hands-on project in partnership with the local factory of WH Smith and Sons (Tools) Ltd has given them first-hand experience of work in an engineering firm.

The company's Minworth factory makes plastic casings for the car and tool industries, using a variety of robotic machines in the manufacturing process, which are designed and built by their own specialist engineering team. Headteacher Lauren Gibbons explains: "We first made contact with the company a year ago on a project to give a small group of girls a taste of the world of engineering. The partnership between school and company was so successful that we were selected by our local Education Business Partnership for this year's Technology Tree scheme."

The scheme was launched in 1990, coinciding with the introduction of national curriculum technology. It creates a working collaboration, for a term, between a primary school and an engineering company in the West Midlands. It helps teachers to deliver the curriculum, gives young children a taste of the world of work, and raises the profile of the company, and the engineering industry in general, in the local community.

A visit to Topcliffe on one of their Technology Tree afternoons found the two top classes - 52 children - in a buzz of activity. Working in six groups, each under the guidance of one of WH Smith's engineers, the children were building working, scale models of the robotic machines they had seen on their half-day visit to the factory. When finished, the models will be assembled into a circuit representing the complete process of making a plastic moulding, from loading in the raw material to dispatch into store by fork-lift truck.

In group one, Teri, Kerry, Nadine and Ann-Marie were keen to demonstrate their articulated-arm robot, used for picking up the mouldings - represented by a ping-pong ball. The arm swivelled round and could be raised and lowered, using pneumatic or hydraulic power, here simulated by a small plastic syringe which could be air or water filled. Electricity to set the whole thing in motion is to be supplied by free-standing batteries and wiring-up was already in progress in several groups.

Another method of retrieving the mouldings was demonstrated by Adrian Saunders' group: their Cartesian robot will travel along a gantry above the moulding machine picking off the finished articles.

Adrian Saunders, one of WH Smith's engineering technicians explains: "We each provided our group with a scale drawing of the machine they had to make, then discussed it with them, and gave the school a list of tools and materials they would need. The children had to transfer the drawing on to card and wood using accurate measurements, and cut out and assemble the models."

An assembly machine, a moulding machine, a Puma robot and a fork-lift truck were also in various stages of completion, but perhaps the best proof of how the project has fired the children's imaginations is "Curly", a magnificent "humanoid" made from cardboard boxes and tubes and papier mache head, all covered with silver paper. He stands about four feet high; his eyes light up (batteries are hidden inside the cardboard box torso); he will walk and do calculations which flash up on a pocket calculator attached to his front like a tie.

He is entirely the brain-child of Matthew, Martin and Glenn, who eagerly produce bits of paper covered with diagrams of electric circuits and lists of materials. They reckon it took them about 75 hours, some of it in lessons, "but much of it in breaks and lunch hours", their teacher, Maureen Nicholls, says.

She and her colleagues, Cath Shearer and Alistair Findlay, have co-ordinated the school's end of the project and are delighted by the enthusiasm and hard work it's generated among the children - right across the curriculum. At the planning stage they mapped out together a cross-curricular programme which has included: o language work, debates, creative writing and drama on the theme of robots o maths work on measuring length and weight and discussions on shape, function and probability o science lessons based on the topic of forces - hydraulics, pneumatics, muscle power and electricity and magnetism.

They have greatly enjoyed this opportunity to work as a team, a point also mentioned by engineering manager Graham Boden, who has supervised the project for the company: "It's been a wonderful team-building exercise for our department. The enthusiasm of the children has buoyed us up and we've been amazed at the quality and inventiveness of their ideas."

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