Building blocks of life

25th April 1997 at 01:00
The construction industry is setting firm foundations for the future by investing in primary projects. Frances Farrer reports

At last, some industry involvement with no visible strings. It is a rather surprising project at that: people who work in the construction industry are taking an interest in primary education. Some of the patrons of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), noticing that the intake into engineering has been disappointing, that A-level and GCSE maths and science students are relatively few, and that university courses in their discipline are not attracting enough undergraduates, turned their attention to the very foundations of the educational structure.

Primary teachers they consulted agreed that design and technology gave them problems. This is less true of younger teachers and more true of those who trained perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, but most will acknowledge the need for help. And so, with industrial sponsorship and support from the Department for Education and Employment, the Design and Technology Association (DATA) has produced Planning into Practice, a pack of workcards and resource materials for key stages 1 and 2. It is anticipated that CIBSE patrons will provide workshops on the materials for teachers and also find local industrial sponsors for the kits.

The instigator of the scheme is Dr Mike Murray, a CIBSE patron and a parent-governor at an Oxfordshire primary school. His perception not only of the needs of young children but also of the advantages of developing their technical ability led to the project. His patron status within his professional organisation gave him the autonomy to do this. Dr Murray is an achiever whose own company has just won a Pounds 15 million contract to do control systems work at Heathrow airport, and he has donated personally to Planning into Practice.

CIBSE patrons support education by funding special projects. They have taken this current initiative using some of their own funds and raising money from industrial giants such as Esso and Unilever. Building services engineers design heating, ventilation and water systems, usually for larger industrial or office buildings. With the new emphasis on energy efficiency and the trend towards intelligent (sic) buildings (for example using the maximum direct sunlight, or regulating their own temperature using solar power) building services engineers believe they are coming out of their Cinderella past into a brave new future. Hence the need for more of them.

There are three kits (costing about Pounds 40 each) supported by the pack; each can be used with eight pupils at a time and is focused on two years in the primary range. The first kit could produce a pneumatic monster or a moving picture show and includes syringes, lolly sticks and adhesives among its materials. By Years 5 and 6 the projects have arrived at electrical circuits and the box includes bulbs and buzzers, switches and pulleys.

At a demonstration workshop in Banbury most of the participating teachers were enthusiastic. They had been set the problem of opening the monster's mouth. In the kit, the monster's head was a cardboard and cotton-reel construction with jagged teeth. The solution involved a balloon, a pump, and a piece of tube. This key stage 2 pneumatic systems project shows how to create controls using a balloon and a syringe air-pump. On the workshop day it was also used to lift the back of a tip-up truck.

All the materials for the demonstration workshop were provided in the supporting kit and although it would be perfectly possible to collect the same materials or substitutes, the teachers agreed it would be time-consuming. The teachers were pleased by the clarity of the work sheets and the helpful practicality of the supplementary help sheets. There is also a book of case studies which gives suggestions for long-term planning.

The Banbury teachers' first concern was how to cater for the rest of the pupils in their classes, the majority not engaged in the eight-child activity. The infants teachers also wanted to know how to make the activities cross-curricular. All of them were bothered about how much time they might be able to give to becoming proficient enough at the tasks to use them in the classroom.

A south Oxfordshire primary head, given a swift look at the workcards, was similarly enthusiastic. He said they were well presented and offered plenty of comprehensible new ideas, and like the Banbury teachers he was impressed by the help sheets. All the projects were devised by a group of teachers within DATA and have been tested in classrooms; case studies describing this process are given in the pack.

Past efforts made by the CIBSE to sponsor materials for schools have largely fallen on stony ground, patrons believe, because teachers had no assistance with using the materials. Planning into Practice is intended to change all that through the workshop back-up.

Will this project produce eager A-level students in 10 years' time, dead keen to go into building construction services? Dr Murray says his objective in developing the materials was to get more people into design and technology, and hence in the longer term, perhaps inevitably, into the building services industry.

He knows it is a gamble but believes it is the one with the best odds: that primary school children who are shown how things work and how interesting materials and processes are, will become curious, and their curiosity will increase until this very desirable result is achieved. The six-year-olds who enjoy these projects, CIBSE patrons hope, may be the very ones to get into plumbing, lifts, and crucial building controls, to the greater comfort of all.

For today's teachers the materials seem promising, if they can only find the time to get to the workshops, and the CIBSE can find the funding.

For further information contact Adam Poole, CIBSE, 222 Balham High Road, London SW12 9BS. Tel: 0181 675 5211

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