Chariots of wire

14th March 2003 at 00:00
John Dabell watches the count down to an athletics contest for robots

Techno Games is a television competition in which teams design and build robots to compete in Olympic-style sporting events such as swimming, relay, gymnastics and long jump. The contest is open to techathletes of all ages and standards and is designed to test their inventiveness and resourcefulness.

It is the sister programme of the hit show Robot Wars, but where that contest is about being combative and destructive, Techno Games is about being constructive. However, both programmes share common ground - skill, challenge, rivalry, fun, drama and a passion for robot building.

The driving force and inspiration behind Techno Games is Steve Carsey. He encourages teachers to take up the challenge by "cultivating links with local businesses, making contact with engineers and tapping into resources and expertise".

Bill Hobbins, co-executive producer of Techno Games, says: "We want teachers to recognise the potential of this sport. We can provide a catalyst and the stage but we need teachers to provide the motivation and seize the opportunity."

The fourth series of Techno Games, which starts next week, clearly demonstrates that young people want somewhere to show off their robots.

The National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) sponsors a Techno Games award for innovation and previous winners have flown to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to meet robot builders at NASA and see a space shuttle launch.

NESTA is also involved in the Roboteers in Residence scheme which has seen master robot-makers spending time in further education colleges helping students.

The Young Engineers Club of Paringdon Junior School in Harlow is an example of a productive and rewarding partnership. The club, which meets once a week after school, was formed two years ago and has a membership of 20 aged 9 to 11. It is run by teacher Norma Martland and Paul Clements, a former Nortel electronics design engineer.

The club was formed to foster practical learning of all aspects of engineering. Their entry for this, their second year attending Techno Games, is Tortilla, a swimming turtle. Norma Martland describes making it:

"Children were involved in designing, making drawings, building circuits, soldering, using different components and painting. A number of cross-curricular skills were also developed within English, maths, science and PSHE."

The time and effort invested in a robot project are enormous but the pay-offs are more than worth it. Children develop qualities such as cooperation, independence, ingenuity, leadership, persistence and confidence. Clearly, the children at Paringdon are proud of being part of a design and construction team.

They built their first prototype with Meccano before using various recycled materials such as polystyrene, wood, papier mache and an old satellite dish to make the final version. Most robots competing at Techno Games are made from disgarded materials.

As a result of their involvement with last year's Techno Games, the Paringdon Young Engineers were invited by BBC Factual and Learning to participate in the BBC2 children's education series Pods Mission. Tortilla was featured in a programme called Circuits and Conductors, and last April the school was named as the National Youth Engineers Club of the Month.

Other Paringdon projects include the great apple race and a hot-air balloon contest.

Robots are attention grabbing and some competitors have used this as a way of raising money for charity. Paul Cooper, a governor at Oakfield Primary School in Southampton, has organised various fundraising events with his robot Mousecatcher.

Techno Games is amazing to watch, but imagine the thrill of competing. The atmosphere is electric. Whether a school makes it to television or not, pupils are guaranteed to enjoy themselves, so why not give it a go?

For information about entering See also The next series of Techno Games starts on Monday at 6.45pm on BBC2

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