Cardinal Newman Roman Catholic school in Luton, Bedfordshire, hardly looks like a powerhouse of engineering excellence. Its run-down buildings are encased in scaffolding, and flimsy wooden panels on the walls of the design and technology classroom show where asbestos has been removed.
But out of this very ordinary classroom, and the workshop next door, has come such a stream of ingenious, award-winning products that the shelves in the corner groan under the weight of all the prizes. They include a radio alarm device for parents to keep track of wandering toddlers, shortly to be stocked by Mothercare, a carbon monoxide detector, the design of which sold for pound;10,000, and a cyclone early warning system, which the school hopes will soon be in place in the villages of Bangladesh.
The secret of the school's success is a vibrant after-school young engineers club, run by senior teacher Gerry Heather. Professional engineers from the Defence Coordination Services Agency give their time free, and the club is self-financed by prize winnings and product sales. The 31 members meet after school on Fridays, but pupils are always working on projects at lunchtimes.
"It takes over your life," says Mr Heather. "But it's worth it. It brings so much into school. All the pupils are working on things higher than their age range, and they get to go to places, and learn extra stuff, and it's a chance for them to work with adult experts in the field."
The club has for a long time enjoyed the help of a senior engineer - who comes in weekly from nearby RAF Henlow - and other sponsors. It is open to anyone and members range from young special needs students to high-flying sixth-formers. The only rules are that members have to turn up, and they have to be involved.
"But you look forward to it," says 13-year-old Joanna Jakusz-Gostomski. "You learn a lot and it helps you get ahead with your studies."
Thirteen-year-old Margaret Duffy agrees. "I had to give a presentation on our design for our Fridge of the Future to people at Herts university - adults and students. Now I know I can do that, and I won't be shy about it in the future."
The club won the 1999 British Airports Authority Environmental Challenge: School Energy Audit by discovering that most of the heat leaving the classroom was escaping through the floor. "Which is just the opposite of what you'd think," says 17-year-old Tracey Barrett, who, with 14-year-old Sarah Pitkin, has just developed Hear Boy, a vibrating collar system for controlling deaf dogs - of which there are, they point out, many more than people think.
The club also won the Engineering Club of the Year award in 1999, earning pupils a trip to visit industries in Bremen and Hamburg, where, says Mr Heather, the pupils noticed immediately "the pride and joy which everyone from the managing director to the apprentice took in showing us what they produced".
This is the kind of attitude he hopes clubs such as his can help to foster. He believes passionately that they not only offer hands-on learning, but also develop thinking, social and presentational skills, and provide students with the motivation to grapple with tricky maths and science concepts.
Until this year, the Young Engineers Clubs awards were run by a charity, the Association of Science, Engineering and Technology. But they have now passed into the hands of the newly formed Young Engineers, a group backed by six sponsors - Lloyd's Register, BAA, BAC Systems, BT, Nortel Networks and the Royal Navy.
The aim is to promote engineering as a group activity in schools. Club awards are given not merely for exciting work, but also for the breadth, liveliness and creativity with wich the clubs are run.
This year's awards were judged in June at the Millennium Dome, where pupils from the 16 clubs in the finals displayed their activities, presented their projects and talked about how their clubs were organised.
What was immediately clear was that engineering today easily crosses the boundaries of age, sex and class. Primary schools mingled with secondaries; inner-city comprehensives with well-known boarding schools, while, almost without exception, mixed schools had more girls in their clubs than boys.
But the nature of the clubs varied widely. Some were housed in new technology blocks, produced professional-standard displays, and could call on large rafts of influential contacts. Others were clearly little more than one inspired teacher and a handful of dead-keen pupils.
What they shared was an ability to get their teeth into a problem and worry it until the wrinkles fell out.
The winning club, from Milford Haven comprehensive, in Pembrokeshire, was praised for its good ideas and high standard of work. The club has about 15 students, mainly drawn from Years 8 and 9, and presented a mini-computer to help swimmers monitor their training, an easy-opening door device to help disabled people, and a carrying and storing device for model aircraft.
"The lad who designed that realised that a lot of these expensive models got damaged in transit," says club leader and design technology teacher David John. "So he got on to the Internet and and got in touch with model aircraft clubs on all five continents and calculated market demand. Then, later on, he went down to Cardiff university to show them his idea and ask what materials would be best for making it. And, remember, we're talking about a boy who's only 13."
The award for the best new club went to Polegate school, a primary in East Sussex, which presented a model for a pantomime stage set for Snow White with a working security system for the dwarfs' house, and a project to design and make a celebration jelly.
Club leader Claire O'Donoghue, who co-ordinates art and design and technology at Polegate, has 30 pupils in her club, which started last year, "and a waiting list". She says: "I'd recommend anyone to do it. It takes a bit of motivation and you need to establish outside links. But you really tap into their enthusiasm at this age."
Chris Hoare, chairman of Young Engineers, says: "I was amazed by the standard of work produced by all these students. They've got key skills. They're working in teams. They can articulate what they are doing, and their sense of innovation is terrific. As for the teachers, I can't praise what they do highly enough. Everything they do is outside the curriculum."
Among his plans is a more active use of the web. "We've got 1,600 schools on our database, and 22,000 youngsters. We might feature a club of the month, or a young engineer of the month. The possibilities are endless."
He is also determined that Young Engineers will work closely to match the Government's agenda in schools, and in the new skills and learning councils.
Young Engineers, National Centre, Brooklands Museum, Brooklands Road, Weybridge, Surrey KT13 0QN. Tel: 01932 821983
* Tops for 2000
This year's winners of the Young Engineers awards:
* BAA Systems Award for Engineering Excellence Duncanrig secondary school, South Lanarkshire * BT Millennium Prize Blythe Bridge school, Staffordshire * Lloyd's Register Young Engineer Club of the Year Award Milford Haven school, Pembrokeshire * Nortel Networks Award for Best New Club Polegate primary school, East Sussex * Royal Navy Engineering Success Through Teamwork Award Bowring comprehensive, Liverpool * Best Young Discoverers Club, presented by BAA Fowlmere primary school, Hertfordshire * Sir Henry Royce Foundation Award for Craftmanship Our Lady of Sion school, West Sussex