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Rural renewal challenge

West Country students join surveyors and engineers to devise an eco-friendly development plan.

In the heart of the Devon countryside, groups of sixth formers donned hard hats and braved driving rain and farmyard mud for a hands-on lesson in sustainable development.

They were set a challenging task working in teams of four. First they had to carry out a detailed site inspection of some disused farm buildings.

Then, with help from construction industry professionals, the teams had to come up with detailed proposals on how to develop the site in an environmentally sustainable way.

More than 50 students from eight secondary schools around Devon and Cornwall took part in the recent Geography and Sustainable Development Competition at the University of Plymouth's agricultural college campus, Seale-Hayne, near Newton Abbot. The annual event is backed by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the South West Regional Development Agency. It aims to promote sustainable development in education and to interest students in potential careers in a construction industry plagued by skills shortages.

"We want to help young people in the region understand some of the issues surrounding the built environment, since it is extremely important to our and their future," says Peter Holgate, senior lecturer in rural land management at the University of Plymouth.

Since 1999 the Government has set out its strategy for pursuing sustainable development, which it defines as "ensuring a better quality of life for everyone, now and for generations to come". It outlines four objectives: social progress, recognising everyone's needs; protecting the environment; prudent use of natural resources; and maintaining high and stablelevels of economic growth and employment.

Local authorities have adopted Local Agenda 21 action plans for sustainable development in all policy areas, including planning, transport, housing, employment, the local environment and education. With the green agenda part of the national curriculum in geography, and now citizenship, the sustainable development competition was devised to bring schools together with engineers, architects and surveyors.

The first event was last year, at a harbour-side site in Bristol, where students had to tackle urban regeneration issues, such as working with a variety of landowners, potential contamination of the land, and historic monuments. This year's site was deliberately chosen to reflect rural issues. Students were given plans of the site and after half an hour spent inspecting the barns and sheds on the edge of the university campus, they put together their proposal.

Tony Westcott, a chartered quantity surveyor who teaches at the University of the West of England, says the competition has lessons for both schools and construction professionals. "We had teachers who were supposed to be teaching sustainable development who didn't really understand it. One classic response was from last year's event. There was a geography teacher who came up and said: 'I thought sustainable development was about saving trees in the Amazonian rainforest, and not realising that the issues are all around us'.

"I think the really rewarding thing is the extent to which the professionals actually find some of the students' questions quite challenging. Last year we had a senior partner of an international cost consultancy practice saying some of the questions were really taxing him."

The final winner was a team from Torquay Girls' Grammar school, which won pound;500 for the school and pound;25 book tokens for the students. Their proposal was to develop the buildings into an education centre on the theme of where our food comes from. This involved a rural craft shop, a farm shop selling local produce and a cafe. Their proposal was also ecologically-sound, with rainwater collected from the roof to flush toilets, and the use of solar panels. The building work was to be carried out by recycling old materials from the site. "It's been a terrific team-building event, says Teresa Davidson, head of geography at the school.

"They have learned that they can't do everything themselves - the assignment was huge and they had to think fast. I think it's been a good learning experience."

For further details on the Geography and Sustainable Development Competition Email: Matthew McKaig 01749 673672.

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