Classes make a rapid response to civil engineering challenge

5th November 2010 at 00:00
When a hurricane in Honduras interrupts an engineer's presentation to Scottish pupils about his work, it turns out this is no ordinary careers talk. The youngsters are spurred into action

The battered coastline has taken a pounding, with monstrous winds and waves leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.

It's just another careers talk until Hurricane Wilma hits Honduras and a BBC news bulletin interrupts the engineers, who are in the middle of explaining all they do, from building roads to ensuring clean water supplies.

The TV reports quickly make it clear that thousands of people in the Central American country are now homeless, with no food or drinking water. Roads are wrecked, hospitals damaged and crops ruined.

The engineers tell pupils about an international charity called RedR, which improves the effectiveness of disaster relief, helping to rebuild the lives of those affected.

It specialises in sending volunteers to areas of the world where aid is desperately needed: areas struck by a natural disaster, war zones or areas stricken by economic disasters.

Then the presentation is again interrupted as an engineer's mobile phone starts ringing. It's RedR looking for volunteers to go to Honduras. The organisation is looking for teams to support the relief work - to build houses and roads, but most importantly to get clean water to the people.

"Do you want to help?" the engineer asks the pupils. Cries of "yes!" fill the air, drowning out the smattering of contrary noes.

For the next two weeks all normal classes will be cancelled, the engineer announces to a unanimous chorus of delighted shrieks.

The engineer continues: "You are going to learn all about the town of Pespire in Honduras and you are going to develop the kinds of skills that will help you before we transport you out to the disaster area."

And so begins the Rapid Response Engineering Challenge.

Managed by the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in Scotland, the challenge is aimed at S1-2 pupils to help them understand the scope of work undertaken by civil engineers, particularly in the event of a disaster, focusing on shelter, safe drinking water, transportation and communication.

The project is cross-curricular, with the materials provided by the ICE, including detailed lesson plans suggesting how different departments can play their part (see panel). The challenge culminates in an activity day when the engineers return to help teaching staff and pupils to make shelters; transport water; build weather instruments; orienteer in Spanish; build a water purification system; create healthy food; and make a presentation to the World Health Organisation, detailing their solution for the town of Pespire, where 2,500 people are without shelter.

Schools are also encouraged to raise money for people in the developing world as part of the challenge.

The Rapid Response Challenge was originally designed by Brian McArtney, a technical studies teacher at Carnoustie High in Angus, along with CITB- Construction Skills and the ICE.

Alastair Stewart is a retired civil engineer who co-ordinates it in schools in the east of Scotland. He says: "There are mega civil engineering projects coming up, from the new Forth Road Bridge crossing to the Commonwealth Games. Despite the job cuts just now, we are still suffering from a shortage of engineers.

"Kids have the impression that an engineer is someone who changes oil. Even though they drink water and cross bridges, they don't necessarily associate that with engineering. Through initiatives like this, we can gradually change their perceptions."

Craigmount High in Edinburgh has run the challenge for the past two years; the last time was in September, when every department in the school took part.

The engineers' presentation is a great way to kick off the Rapid Response Challenge and grabs pupils' imaginations, says Denise Blair, the school's PT maths, who introduced the challenge to Craigmount

It is a huge bonus to have a ready-made, tried-and-tested cross-curricular project available to schools, which chimes so well with Curriculum for Excellence. But it still takes a lot of effort to run, she says: "Even if you are an experienced head of department, working with 250 S2 pupils and 50 other senior students is a lot to think about."

Craigmount stuck with some of the suggestions for lessons and activities made in the Rapid Response Challenge, but the school has also adapted the project to suit its own circumstances.

Unlike some schools, Craigmount did not turn it into a competition, and in the second year it recruited S6 pupils to act as coaches on the activity day for each mixed-ability team. Headteacher John Campbell says: "We would absolutely recommend it."

This year, following the challenge, Craigmount High raised well over pound;1,000 towards the relief effort for the earthquake in Haiti.

Across the board

Home economics - research the food grown in Honduras and make coconut bread, mango chutney and banana bread.

Modern languages - learn the basics of the local language, Spanish.

Geography - become familiar with the country (its location, population, capital, main exports) and learn about the formation of hurricanes.

Religious and moral education - learn about the charities that help directly when aid is required after disasters.

Maths - work out the cost of plastic sheeting used in a shelter that consists of triangles and rectangles and work out the time it will take to transport emergency supplies.

Science - learn about water purification.

English - hone presentation and communication skills.

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