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Smart library at your fingertips

Five summer school students put aside reference books in favour of hand-held computers, reports Eleanor Caldwell

Electronic engineering is not the sexiest subject in the prospectus, admits Glasgow University lecturer Scott Roy, and there is an ongoing need to raise interest. So, he runs a class for prospective students as part of the university's summer school programme.

Over a seven week period, students attend two three-hour sessions a week - a mixture of lectures and practical work - in the electronics and electrical engineering department. This year's five summer school students - who had all just finished S5 - were also included in a pilot with undergraduates to extend the scope of computer-assisted learning in electronics courses.

Each school student was issued with a personal digital assistant, a palm-sized computer which has about the same capacity as a laptop computer but with the portability of a pocket calculator and is operated with a stylus. The idea was that they could use the PDAs to continue their work outside class time.

The PDAs were programmed with 50 questions based on the course and a range of detailed data tables, properties of materials and lists of electronic components, in fact a full reference system for answering the questions. Mr Roy was able to monitor students' progress since the program was linked to his departmental base.

The PDAs also held personal organiser programs and e-mail and mobile telephone text messaging facilities, so the students could send their tutor questions.

The teenagers, all from the Glasgow area, had mixed views about the value of the technology. Lee McLaughlin, of St Paul's High, was enthusiastic, saying: "When you're just walking down the street and you get an idea, at least you've got somewhere to note it immediately." He used his PDA sometimes for jotting down an inspirational song lyric too.

Sunil Sanghera, of Bellahouston Academy, was less committed to it for practical reasons. "The screen is just too small and the font is too small.

I find it quite uncomfortable to look at for any length of time." He explained that he downloaded material from the PDA to his own computer.

For Anton Allan, of Eastbank Academy, the breadth of information stored on the PDA was particularly useful. He was also doing a chemistry summer course and made a lot of use of the periodic table data. He was thinking of studying chemical engineering at Strathclyde University but now is considering electrical engineering.

Fadi Chalabi, of Drumchapel High, lost his initial enthusiasm for the PDA.

"I really know my stuff about computers, but in a way I'd rather just get on with the work based on books, notes and my own computer. If I wanted to work on the bus, I'd just take out my books," he said.

The one girl on the course, Helen Boswell, of Smithycroft Secondary, was amazed to learn that the PDAs could be used to download music, games and even books and took the chance to have a copy of Orwell's 1984 sent from Mr Roy's PDA to her own.

"We don't normally get to know the kids beyond our subject area, so this put a whole new slant on the summer school," he says.

Researcher Jon Trinder and lecturer Jane Magill, who have been monitoring the PDA pilot work with undergraduates, say they are now looking to offer trainee teachers on the bachelor degree course in technological education the chance to use the technology. "They would greatly benefit from being able to e-mail queries to academic staff while on teaching practice, for example. There are often technical questions that we, as specialists, might be better placed to answer than members of the education department whom the students will see more frequently," says Ms Magill.

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