Better by design

8th October 2004 at 01:00
Young people with severe learning difficulties were exacting clients for equipment designed by A-level students at a neighbouring school. Jerome Monahan reports

As handover ceremonies go, it was a modest affair - a small gathering of staff and pupils, no champagne or speeches. Yet the moment marked the conclusion of a transforming educational collaboration. It was celebrating the success of a scheme involving a small group of Edexcel A-level design and technology students from Lampton School in Hounslow, west London, and their "clients" at Lindon-Bennett School for pupils with severe or profound multiple learning difficulties.

The Lampton students were delivering the results of their A-level coursework - a number of learningplay devices and special textile designs specifically created for individual Lindon-Bennett students.

"Lindon-Bennett students have been visiting us for four years," explains Lampton's head of DT Gerald Dare. "Once a week they make use of our design and science facilities and also interact with our pupils at break times.

For example, practising buying food from our tuck shop. It was thanks to these connections that the A-level coursework idea arose."

This is not the first time Lampton's DT students have met a Lindon-Bennett brief. "Two years ago we came up with a number of special key attachments designed for L-B students," explains Mr Dare. "The keys were all provided with visual and other sensory clues to suggest where they should be taken.

So the nurse's room key had something connected to it smelling of TCP, and so on." This initial project was moderately successful, but the prototypes proved not to be robust or practical enough - important lessons for this year's crop of designers.

Student Randeep Birdi's "play gym" is both durable and flexible. In use, it resembles a table fixed onto a yielding foam base. From drilled holes in its clear acrylic top a variety of mobiles can be hung for a child lying below to play with. Into the foam, Randeep carved grooves shaped to take the gym's legs when it is disassembled. "The storage issue was raised when I showed my initial designs to Lindon-Bennett's staff," explains Randeep.

"Making the top clear was important too. Teachers can lie pictures on it for someone below to see and the whole thing can be covered to provide opportunities for other kinds of sensory work." In all, the gym cost about pound;30 to manufacture and Lindon-Bennett was happy to pick up the bill for the materials for this and the other designs.

"Even if it existed in the catalogues, which it doesn't, something like this would cost us hundreds of pounds," explains Lindon-Bennett's deputy head Sue Lawrie. "Also, much of the equipment available is really designed for early learning purposes featuring The Tweenies - quite inappropriate for our students."

With this in mind Nikita Sohota's and Sujai Rajagopalan's learning trays and boards feature stimuli aimed at the age and interests of their target users. Nikita's music game was for Lindon-Bennett student Antonia to help her practise her motor skills guiding a ball through a maze until it triggers a switch to play an attached tape recorder.

"The only remotely similar things like this feature nursery rhymes," explains Nikita. "Antonia likes pop and classical music." Nikita also benefited from regular feedback on her ideas. "Originally, the maze was a 'z' but that proved too challenging," adds Nikita, "and so eventually I went for a simpler 'H' shape."

Meanwhile, Sujai's boards are variations on a theme of spinning shapes, which house images and are attached to a firm rod and base. "They needed to be fixed," explains Sujai. "I had to take into account the fact that smaller hand-held items might end up flying through the air." Both the box-spinner and pedal-shaped spinners hold their images behind Perspex enabling them to be replaced.

"It is great that some feature footballers," points out Sue Lawrie. "That is ideal for Luke who is a great fan - but because the stars come and go, it is good we can slot in other images and keep the display up to date. " This was also the day for Gurpreet Panesar and Navjoat Sehmi, both 18, to present their textile designs. "We were challenged to come up with textile ideas for students when they have been using swimming pools," explains Navjoat. "One goal was a fixable towel made to be put on easily and stay on and capable of keeping a student warm in case there's an emergency and they have to leave the pool in a hurry." Meanwhile, Gurpreet created a variety of trousers to help students dress themselves after swimming. "To make them easy to put on, I devised some Velcro fastenings," she says. "I also covered them in various bits of applique so that they became as stimulating as possible."

The students offered to spend some of their summer creating further items for Lindon-Bennett students in different sizes. In the end, the greatest benefit for Lampton's students has been the opportunity to work so closely with young people with special needs. "At first it was hard to judge some of the behaviour we were seeing," explains Nikita Sohota. "Some of the students can appear very distressed at first - but we got used to being here. It really feels like I have achieved something seeing the students here playing with what I have created."

For Gerald Dare the benefits of the project are obvious: "As an Edexcel DT moderator, I see practical work from students that has not had a good starting point and this is often what makes the difference between work that is acceptable and work that is excellent."

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