FASLANE NAVAL base was the unusual setting for an educational course involving 50 Scottish schoolchildren last week - officially to stimulate interest in engineering rather than nuclear power.
The four-day residential course had pupils taking part in the first large-scale event for schools held inside the base, which is home to the UK's nuclear submarine fleet.
A principal element saw groups of mostly S2 children, all from west of Scotland schools, designing ship lifts capable of raising a submarine out of the water. The children's scaled-down versions used fizzy drinks bottles instead of submarines and fischertechnik - plastic construction kits - instead of industrial metal.
On the final day of their stay they were taken to visit the actual ship lift, inside a huge warehouse on the Clyde. Other activities included boat trips on dinghies and a visit to a shooting range.
The emphasis was on stimulating an interest in engineering. The political and historical role of Faslane, which is once again the subject of heated debate in the controversy over the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system, was not officially part of the course.
The course was organised by Babcock Naval Services, which is responsible for engineering at Faslane and picked up the costs, and The Smallpeice Trust, an independent charity which promotes engineering careers to young people.
The children, who stayed in military barracks just outside the base, were aware of the Faslane 365 protesters - who are involved in a year-long anti-nuclear campaign - but seemed largely nonplussed by their presence.
Joyce MacGinley, communi-cations and corporate relations specialist at Babcock, said that none of the children asked about the protesters, although Stephen Lees, 13, of Our Lady and St Patrick's High in Dum-barton, pointed out that the children had not been told anything about them.
Andrew Cave, The Smallpeice Trust's chief executive, said the presence of the protesters added to the experience for children, as it underlined the point that the work at Faslane was part of real life and they could see people making strong views known in a peaceful and legal manner.
Dr Cave explained: "What we are trying to do is ignite young people's engineering DNA - everybody's got some. Hope-fully, it will get them to think about the possibility of a career in engineering. This is a pretty memorable experience. For many of them, it's the first time away from their parents."
The trust is particularly keen to encourage more interest in engineering among girls, pointing to figures that show only 10 per cent of graduates in the subject are female. Dr Cave feels that being given the opportunity of the trip to Faslane makes an impression. "Some of the young ladies I've spoken to have been very loquacious, and taken to this like a duck to water," he said.
Danielle Arnott, 14, also a pupil at Our Lady and St Patrick's High in Dumbarton, felt the project had helped her understand engineering, and she gave an insightful precis of what it involved: "It's about persevering and improvising when things go wrong, and changing your ideas all the time when things don't work."
Aspiring architect Fraser Baird, 13, of Hermitage Academy in Helensburgh, believed engineering skills were useful outwith the profession. "If something at home breaks, this might help," he said. "These are the skills you need to be a householder."
All the children at Faslane had earlier taken part in smaller-scale school-based engineering projects organised by the trust, which might have involved building a bridge or designing a car that protects its occupants in a collision.
The main criterion for entry to a Smallpeice residential project is interest shown by the child, rather than aptitude. Application forms for the trust's projects must be filled in by the children themselves, and young people with learning difficulties are often among those taking part.
The idea for the project at Faslane originated from a chance meeting between Jimmy Johnston, the award-winning head of design and technology at Springburn Academy in Glasgow, and Peter Rogers, Babcock International's chief executive.