Brain sell

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Carolyn O'Grady sees a project that helps children think like Leonardo da Vinci and market like Richard Branson

The visualisation exercise is about to begin and the children are raring to go. They are given some letters of the alphabet and instructions on how to manipulate them.

"Imagine a large U and a smaller D", says Kevin Byron. "Tip the D up and place it on top of the U. Inside the D put a small O and put an equals sign in the middle of the U. Extend the left hand prong of the U. What do you have?"

About 10 children shout "a mobile phone".

"You're starting to think a little like Leonardo da Vinci or Edison," he responds. "Let's do another."

The 30 Year 5 and 6 children are gathered on the premises of an industrial company. They are from 10 Hertfordshire primary schools and have just embarked on the Invention Adventure, a workshop designed to challenge their creativity and inventiveness in science.

Organised by Hertfordshire Setpoint (a network aiming to increase interest and understanding of science, engineering and related subjects) and the Gifted and Talented programme, the workshop is one of a series hosted by industrial firms.

Jane Turner, Hertfordshire Setpoint's primary manager, says: "Science is all about thinking and questioning and we aim to give these children, already identified as being good at science, an opportunity to develop the higher order thinking skills that will help them become even better scientists. We want them to learn that science is a creative subject where there are new possibilities to explore and new factors to consider.

"The workshop doesn't set out to teach them hard science, but to give them the tools to develop, manipulate and use scientific ideas. In this year's SATs about 40 per cent of the marks will be given for understanding the scientific process. Something like this can deliver most of the five thinking skills which are needed to deliver this and every subject."

Run by Kevin Byron, who is researching creativity and devising educational materials as part of a fellowship from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and Arts (Nesta), the workshops begin with a look at the workings of the brain. Clenching two fists together to illustrate its shape and size, he starts a discussion on the enormous potential of that organ and says that with the billions of brain cells they have "you are never going to run out of ideas".

What follows is a series of exercises to awaken the imagination and stimulate creativity, interspersed with some information on inventors, men and women, and some brain gym exercises.

Examining the properties of objects is familiar stuff in science and design and technology as, to a lesser extent, is inventing new ways of using familiar objects, but Kevin Byron takes this one step further.

"Combining ideas is the core of inventing," he says. The printing press was a result of Gutenberg's combining the wine press and coin punch. Trevor Bayliss's wind-up radio blended a clock and radio. It is also the core of punning jokes: "What do you get if you cross a sheep with a kangaroo? A woolly jumper."

So children are encouraged to take objects or shapes, change their size in their mind's eye and combine them with other objects or shapes to make something different. They suggest trendy earrings as a new use for a CD. A plastic cup scaled up becomes a swimming pool and combined with a CD emerges as a flytrap.

Other exercises improve their ability to visualise objects, shapes and ideas. "Visualisation is important," explains Kevin. "I don't want them to get in the habit of drawing straight away. They need to try and tease out ideas in their heads first."

Finally the children move on to the main activity. They have to produce a model based on three shapes, design a poster advertisement for it and impress other children with it at an imaginary exhibition. The importance of communicating ideas is emphasised, after all what's the point of having good ideas if you can't communicate them?

The room is alive with purposeful activity. Roles are assigned and the children are on task. A floating clock is one of the first inventions off the drawing board, from a company called Floating Necessities, followed by the Spin Bucket, a fairground ride from Fair 2U.

Finally it's time for the pupils to justify and promote their ideas. Kevin gives the pupils some questions to ask as they wander from stall to stall - "What is it made of?" "Can you make it smaller?" "Is it safe?" - and the room becomes a sort of bazaar.

"Now I know that scientists think creatively, they use their mind's eye", comments one budding inventor. "It taught me how inventing can be done, and if you think the right way, it is really easy", says another.

The workshops were initiated by Hertfordshire's primary science adviser.

Further information from Setpoint HertfordshireTel: 01438 755075Email: or


Think big

Stage one

Split children into groups of three or four.

Give each group an object, for example a plastic cup, a CD, Post-it Notes, bulldog clip.

The pupils think about the object's properties, for example, shiny, flexible, light. They are told their company has made a million too many and they have to come up with a new use for it, for example the CD could be used as a pizza cutter or a bird scarer.

Stage 2

Students close their eyes and imagine the object is 50 times bigger and think what they could then use it for, for example the plastic cup could be a swimming pool.

Stage 3

Add one other object to the one you have and make something different. So if your group has a plastic cup they might add a CD and make a flytrap.

Changing shapes

Stage 1

Pupils form a "company" of three to five. They have to think up an invention that combines three of the following shapes: A cylinder. It can be any size, very narrow or very short, for example.

A cone. Again, it can be any size and might have the tip cut off.

A ring or a disc. The shapes can be of any material. Encourage the pupils to think about their object before putting pen to paper.

Stage 2

Pupils then decide which invention they prefer and make it using cardboard and tape.

Stage 3

Children make a poster about their invention for an exhibition. It should include a name for the company and product, a drawing of the invention showing what it does, a list of other inventions by the company, and a slogan.

Stage 4

The group sets up a stall with their poster and one person promotes the product to other children who move from stall to stall. Pupils take turns to man the stall and visit other stalls.


This is just one of many exercises which teachers can devise using letters of the alphabet. Children do these in their head, there is no drawing.

Imagine a large Y. There is a small O at the bottom. Imagine a letter I, turn it on its side and place it in the middle of the Y's vertical line.

Flip it upside down. What do you get?

A figure of a person.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today