Daniel Wimbush, aged 13, handles a sophisticated CADCAM (computer aided designcomputer aided manufacture) package with the ease and confidence of a professional. On Daniel's computer screen is a minidisc audio player he has designed, and with just a few clicks on a mouse button, he spins and rotates the player, divides the screen into four to give several different viewpoints, and then changes the colours.
Daniel is part of a Year 9 graphics group at Theale Green Community School in Reading, an 11-18 school that is committed to putting CADCAM into the curriculum. Theale Green is part of an ambitious project - the CADCAM in Schools Initiative - which aims to raise the profile of CADCAM in schools. The initiative is managed by the Design and Technology Association (DATA), and schools taking part in the project receive a free copy of ProDesktop, a CADCAM package developed by Parametric Technology Corporation and widely used throughout industry.
There are many misconceptions about CADCAM. One is that you need very powerful computers to use it and another is that it can only be used by higher-ability pupils or older students. Not so, says Simon Badcock, Theale Green's co-ordinator of technology education: "Young people surprise you when they use CADCAM, and it means different things to students with different abilities. Lower-ability pupils can produce high-quality work with it and keep up with more able ones when it comes to presentation. This helps their motivation, particularly for the boys."
Theale Green's Year 9 graphics groups were the first to use ProDesktop, and in the lesson I visit, the students are using the software to design the casing for a CD, tape or minidisc player. There are 24 computers in the graphics classroom, grouped into three islands of eight PCs. Teacher Steve Herd moves around the room offering help here and there but, for the most part, the pupils are working by themselves, or helping each other.
Alice Bishop, aged 14, has designed a star-shaped CD player and sitting next to her is Pru Bamberger, who is putting the finishing touches to a tape player that has a brick design: "Using this software is good because if you do something wrong, you can change it," says Pru. James Webb, also 14, has already designed a CD player in the shape of a musical note, and now he's experimenting on another design. "The nice thing is that you can try things out," he says. "I still like using pencil and paper, but this is quicker - circles can be exact. And it's very easy to change colours, whereas if you do that on paper, you can ruin your design when rubbing out."
Simon Badcock says the aim is to use ProDesktop with pupils of all ages and abilities. Year 7 students will use it to design a wristwatch, and it is now being used by Year 9 and 10 graphics students. Year 10 pupils already have the option to use CADCAM for their exam project work, and some A-level students are using it for a module on communication devices. Every summer term, Year 6 pupils from local primary schools visit Theale Green school on a taster day, and there are plans to use the software with them next year.
"We're trying to make CADCAM as versatile as possible and we want to use it in all aspects of design and technology," says Mr Badcock. Some textiles work already involves CADCAM and there are plans to include it in the work schemes for Year 10 electronics, for designing printed circuit boards, and food and nutrition - one idea is to use the software for designing pastry cutters. Lisa Hackett is a teacher of textiles, and has been responsible for integrating it with her subject. She has used CADCAM with Years 7-11. During a textiles lesson, pupils can draw their designs, scan them into a computer and then use the software to create elaborate stitching, patterns and colours. CADCAM has been used for fashion and interior design work and to create hats, T-shirts, cushions and even a wedding dress.
"CADCAM offers lower-ability children a helping hand. Higher-ability students can make the most of their creativity," says Lisa Hackett. "The quality of work is so good, and it can be done much more quickly, especially if it involves fancy stitching or an elaborate logo." Simon Badcock says the computer work does not replace traditional graphics skills, and the split between CADCAM and conventional graphics work is about 50:50. "You're still going through the same thought processes whether it's on paper or on a computer," he says. To bring both sides of graphics work together, students can design on paper and then develop their idea on a computer.
Mr Badcock emphasises that it takes time to train students how to use the software, although once this hurdle has been passed, pupils can create amazing design work. Another issue is converting a 2-D design on a computer screen into a 3-D model that can be held by the student. Theale Green has two machines that can do this, but they are not cheap - one costs pound;12,000 and the other is pound;700. "I think this is the biggest challenge. We can print out designs in colour, but it's a world away from holding something you've designed," says Mr Badcock. "We've got this industrial-strength software in schools, now we need the hardware to make designs a reality. I'm sure it will happen."