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Spice-age pioneers

A magic plastic activities pack could dramatically reshape future lessons. Mike Levy reports

Can plastic transform the average DT lesson? Ask Polly Palmer, a champion of polypropylene. Together with her partner Jane Snelling, she has produced a highly innovative pack for fledgling product designers.

The Spice packs (named after their company and not the 1990s girl band, insists Polly) consist of projects and activities which encourage key stage 3 to 5 students to create cutting-edge products for the new century. The most unusual aspect of the pack, however, is its handling collection: a range of funky post-modern polypropylene products that can be easily assembled by young hands. "The material is highly flexible, strong and very easy to cut and shape", says Polly who demonstrates how thin blue bits of "polyprop" (as she calls it) are transformed into a small waste bin, a trowel, a cute mobile phone holder - and most impressive of all, a pair of full-size male and female manikins ready to be clothed in this year's school fashion range.

"We have employed a company called 2PM to produce the polyprop products.

They are made out of strong plastic that can be easily cut to any shape", says Polly, whose company has exclusive supplies of this unusually thin polyprop - 280 microns, if you're counting. Her interest in how schools can get involved in product design comes from her days at the Design Museum in London. She and Jane were education officers at the museum and devised all sorts of exciting programmes for young people.

When the museum cut its education programmes back, Polly and Jane launched their company which offers a range of workshops for teachers and students as well as the Spice packs. Polly, who also lectures in the history of design, is a keen advocate of new design. They offer projects linked to the national curriculum, templates so students can make their own products, information on the materials used and lots of background on computer-aided design and manufacturing used by 2PM.

"The great strength of the polypropylene is that you can design, plan and create something absolutely practical in a few hours. Our packs emphasise design skills and product evaluation which is just as important".

A very full workbook of activities, suitably printed on polyprop material, accompanies the handling collection. "We offer lots of suggestions on how to set up and develop a design project, and there are many experiments that students can carry out that encourage them to brainstorm, project plan and research the market - it's all very hands on and emulates the way that real products are developed in the real world," she says. Buoyed by the success of their first product, the Spice pair is just about to bring out their second, the Light Resource Pack. This will also include a handling collection, but this time cute and novel ideas around the theme of indoor lighting (including a very desirable little candle holder).

The pack also includes projects, activities, essential health and safety information, a history of lighting design and case studies of innovative British designers. Plans are also afoot, says Polly, to produce Spice Bites - product and design-related activities specifically aimed at teachers who have to provide cover for absent DT staff. "Being an ex-design teacher myself, I know how hard it is for non specialists to cover your lessons," explains Polly. "This is much better than the usual range of time-wasting quizzes and word puzzles."

According to Polly, "Britain has always been a leader in product design.

Using this very flexible and easy-to-use material, students can quickly design and build real prototypes - just as the industry would do it." For this Polly, it seems that polypropylene could shape the future for all aspiring product designers.

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