The red lights are showing, the green light is on andI they're off. And, er, that's itI from start to finish in less than two seconds. Two finely machined and finished racing cars competing against a digital clock that measures up to a hundredth of a second. Surrounding the track are huge presentation billboards; enthusiastic crowds cheer on their favourites.
With a little imagination you might think you were at a Formula One or professional drag-racing meet. In fact, it's the BETTeducational technology show at Olympia, London where, in January this year, visitors were wowed by the F1 Team in Schools Challenge.
Launched in November 2000, the F1 Team in Schools Challenge now has more than 500 entries. Balsa-wood cars, powered by CO2 cartridges hurtle down a 24-metre track at speeds of up to 40mph. The cars must be designed and manufactured using CADCAM (computer-aided design and manufacture) software and have to meet strict competition requirements that govern length, wheel diameter and weight. James Allen, lead commentator for Formula One at ITV, confessed to being "blown away" by the project. "I spend my whole life working in F1 where the best of the best operate. I never thought it was possible for children to attain such high standards."
The fastest cars clock up times between 1.2 and 1.5 seconds, but teams are not only judged on track speed but on safety, aerodynamics, aesthetics, engineering quality, accuracy of manufacture and presentation skills. The brief visceral dash to glory represents months of painstaking research, design and manufacture.
With 15 technical rules, three age categories - each with its own awards that include "best engineering" and "best presentation" - and some seriously talented students taking part, the competition has rapidly gained a reputation for technical innovation.
So when Thao Nguyen, head of design and technology, decided to enter two teams from ADT College in Putney, south London, she couldn't have been too hopeful of success in their first year. In fact, the key stage 3 and 4 teams rocketed through the regional finals in Winchester and acquitted themselves honourably in the national final at Olympia.
What started as a club activity in the school lunch hour has been so successful that it has been incorporated into KS3-4 Damp;T curriculum studies.
It has helped that the F1 Team in Schools Challenge has from the outset been carefully designed to draw on a wide range of engineering and technical skills.
Established in 1991, ADT College is a City Technology College funded by central government and sponsors drawn from industry. Thao points out that "as this is a CTC we have good facilities in technology, especially ICT, and computer access is widely available.
"The way I started out this whole competition was to give them the block of balsa-wood that they would need to cut out the car. Then I talked to them about the actual specification that they'd need to adhere to for the competition. I gave them four weeks to come up with a load of ideas, basically drawing the car in side view."
In class, the original drawings are done by hand, then the students use the CADCAM software ProDesktop which, in its full commercial form, is used by British Aerospace engineers to help them envisage their designs in 3D.
Thao introduces CAD by showing students the difference between 2D and 3D modelling and explaining that both modes share many of the same tools. The tools enable students to draw a profile. Once they are able to grasp the main concepts of CAD drawing (the x, y and z axis) - "I show them the five tricks: extruding, projecting, revolving, sweeping and lofting".
It sounds daunting, but never underestimate the speed and learning capacity of an enthusiast. Sam Standing-Tattersall (KS3 team) says it took him a day to grasp the basics of ProDesktop and "a couple of weeks to learn the more advanced stuff like rounding off the edges".
Jacqueline Dwomoh-Manu of the KS4 team reckons that "we have something like 50 well thought-out designs on the computer". These were whittled down to five balsa-wood prototypes that were machined in the college's CAM workshop.
ADT has its own Denford computer-aided micro-router and the students are confident and competent enough to use it under supervision to cut out their own shapes. The final stage is fitting wheels and axles, and sanding, priming and spraying the chassis to achieve a professional finish.
The design and manufacture of the car is only one component of the competition and represents around 30 per cent of the total points awarded.
Students are also judged on a Powerpoint presentation and the quality of other promotional and presentational material as the KS4 team found to their cost at the national finals. Rival teams had prepared information billboards and some even turned up with matching overalls and team logos.
"We should have gone grander on the presentation," says Arber Pllana, a KS4 team member. "We were very much upstaged but it was important that we went there just to see how good the opposition was."
ICT, specifically the internet, played a significant part in researching the project. Muhammed Murat Miah says he and his colleagues in the KS3 team "researched planes, bullets, motorcycles, boats and birds", and also asked people for information. The initial search - "we put 'aerodynamics' into Google" - delivered a wealth of information, including a link to the NASA website.
Tom Swaddling of the KS4 team believes: "We've learned a lot about aerodynamics and improved our skills on ProDesktop on the computer."
But Thao has seen other, more subtle skills develop: "They've learned a lot in terms of working in a team; that's been quite an experience. The experience of running a project and meeting a deadline is also very important and that has been reflected in terms of the coursework they've since done in school."
The Formula 1 Team in Schools Challenge, sponsored by Jaguar Cars, BAE Systems and Denford, isn't just great fun everyone involved. The more serious intention is to "address the chronic shortage of qualified engineers in the UK by raising the profile of engineering in schools by making it more appealing and accessible to young people".
The industry needs 35,000 new engineers annually just to maintain a status quo. Only 10,000 are currently being produced each year. Hopefully, the F1 Team in Schools Challenge will encourage schools and colleges such as ADT to produce that next generation of engineers. Thao is optimistic: "My students are using the same design software and presentation skills that are being used in industry. These guys should be very, very skilful when they graduate from school."
But that's for the future. The immediate ambition is simple: "We want to build a car to go under a second. That's the Holy Grail of racing," says Arber.
For information about the previous winning car bodies, specifications, competition rules, advice on manufacturing, testing, racing centres and securing sponsorship, visit the official F1 in Schools site www.f1inschools.co.ukcars01.htm
The UK CADCAM in Schools Initiative delivers free CAD software - ProDesktop, ArtCAM and SpeedStep - to schools, colleges and higher education institutions. Details and tutorial CDs for ProDesktop and ArtCAM are available from the site www.denford.co.uk
The cooz site is a resource for pupils and teachers who are running or thinking of starting a CO2 program. During its 22-day unit students learn about the engineering process used in the designing and building of a CO2-powered model race car www.cooz.comco2
The Camp Hill F1 site offers students help with their designs in the competition. Topics covered include entry competition details and marking criteriawww.geocities.comf1_camp_hill
An American site with images and technical specifications www.users.bigpond.compmpooleydragwinners.html
Google can be used to search for subjects such as aerodynamics. Use its image-search facility to find pictures of other cars to evaluate on the internet.
Engineering departments on university websites also have information on topics such as aerospace and automotive engineering www.google.com
RESOURCES USED BY THAO NGUYEN AND ADT STUDENTS
At ADT College the CADCAM skills are developed across the key stages. In Year 7 students are taught how to use a 2D drawing package, such as 2D Techsoft Design, and are encouraged to develop basic drawing skills.
In Year 8, students are taught ProDesktop, a 3D modelling package. They learn the basic skills of how to draw geometric shapes. ProDesktop is free for teachers who have "accredited teacher trainer licences" from Denford.
This involves a day's training. Students can then borrow CD copies for a returnable pound;1 deposit from the college.
There are two main advantages in using ProDesktop: it's a very powerful program, but it can run on a computer with a very basic specification; and the files created are tiny, so it's possible to save work on floppy disks or email them. Exporting the files as JPEGs or bitmaps allows students to manipulate and exchange images for presentational work.
ENTERING THE F1 TEAM IN SCHOOLS CHALLENGE
* Initial drawings should be done by hand to give students a firm idea about dimensions and the constraints of the project. The teacher can then discuss the best way to produce the image on CAD. Doing the drawings straight away on ProDesktop is "pretty much a worthless activity other than giving the students a feel for the software," says Thao Nguyen.
* The project is demanding and running it as a club in the first year has many advantages. Students can develop skills both formally and informally and the teacher can assess the commitment levels of those participating.
* If your school is a new entrant it is strongly recommended that you visit a school which is already taking part. This will give students an opportunity to assess the scale of the project and to understand how much work is likely to be involved. The F1 Team in Schools Challenge website has competition rules, winning times and other details.
* The quality of the final outcome (the car) depends very much on research, and on the CADCAM skills that students acquire during the project.
Research enables students to understand about aerodynamics and speed; the design of the car is based on this knowledge. Skills applied in the use of CAD enable them to realise their design for manufacture.
* Think about sponsorship. Both ADT teams are sponsored by two companies that have links to the college: Youngs Brewery in Wandsworth and the Carlisle Group. The sponsorship money is divided between the two teams and goes to buy primer, paint and presentation materials.
* Think about what makes a good team. Essential skills include time management, presentation competence in both design and in communicating to a panel (in the national finals entrants are allowed five minutes only), identifying and accepting specific areas of responsibility, meeting competition deadlines.
* Wherever possible ensure that students have access to 3D CAD modelling software at school and at home.