The brains of Britain, Germany and France are collaborating on the development of technology materials. Bernard Adams reports.
A group of German technology teachers is watching the plastic buggy they have made whizz around the classroom floor. In another room English and German teachers are building an ingenious exhibition stand out of paper.
What they're doing at this Technology Enhancement Programme (TEP) seminar at Hugh Christie school, Tonbridge, Kent, is what they ask their own pupils to try in their technology classes. But the presence of the German teachers is not accidental: they are part of the TEP's plan to encourage technology exchanges between, initially, schools in Britain, Germany and France.
Professor John Cave of Middlesex University has been a driving force behind the development of teaching materials for TEP. Mainly for the benefit of the German visitors, he demonstrated the two existing packs which have for more than a year now been providing cheap, cheerful and efficient resources for technology classes in schools.
The simplest is the paper-rolling kit. It shows you how to roll pieces of A4 paper round a dowel which is then removed, how to flatten the extremities, punch holes at either end, and then attach the paper cylinders - using correct nuts and bolts - to very cheap white plastic tubes. In a matter of a few hours you can have an exhibition stand - strong enough to display other technology products at a parents' evening.
What's clever about the paper-rolling pack is that it has been backed up by a key tool - a simple automatic punch which costs only pound;17 and gets over the problem of some pupils not being strong enough to operate a manual hole-punch. Most of the German teachers at the seminar chose to work on the second pack. It is a simple plastic four-wheeled buggy with proper steering. It's made of aluminium and once again there's a useful tool on hand - a folding unit for shaping the aluminium which costs pound;48.
These resources are worth describing in detail because they demonstrate the solid practicality of the whole project. A German teacher at the seminar, Michael Stursburg, head of technology at the Erich Freid comprehensive at Wuppertal, has used TEP materials. "There is similar equipment in Germany," he said, "but the packs tend to include a complete set of materials. There's a strict plan in German kits - all the instructions are set down and you have to do it in the correct way."
He's keen on international technology partnerships, as is the leader of the German group, professor Gregor Tyrchan of Duesseldorf University. English schools which have tried them have certainly benefited - in language learning as much as technology.
Martin Clarke is head of technology at Clement Dane's, a comprehensive at Chorleywood, Hertfordshire, which has done pioneering exchanges with schools in Krefeld and Paris. A group of 15-year-olds communicated with their German counterparts through fax and internet and together they designed and built an Oxo cube dispenser. The French begin participation this month. Mr Clarke is keen to takethe process along slowly.
"We want to experiment, to get it right. We've worked with Year 10 so far, perhaps we should start with Year 7 and not get in touch with another country until later."
Just how useful this technology exchange is from the language teacher's point of view was explained earlier at the seminar by Clare Usher, a French teacher at the host school, the Hugh Christie technology college. She and a technology teacher from the school went to College Bellair, a school at Meudon, just outside Paris, and a project was agreed - making a moisture sensor.
"The French were well advanced at electronics, but we are good at modelling and making things. So it was decided that they would make the sensor and we would create the packaging," she explained.
The design specification duly arrived on e-mail and Clare Usher's students set about translating it. "It was difficult at first, but in the end we were able to create a glossary. There is great benefit from the children doing a bit of French in technology and a bit of technology in French."
Or, as Mr Clarke of Clement Dane's school puts it: "It's probably easier to learn a language through doing another subject rather than in the more traditional way of asking 'when is the last train to the beach?' It has more meaning."
John Mattick, national co-ordinator of TEP, believes that the cultural exchange involved in this developing phase of TEP is mutually enriching. "Designing and making is an expression of cultural values. There are tremendous pressures on technology today, so it's helpful for young people to be engaged in discussion as broadly as possible."
While Professor Cave is excited about the latest international developments in TEP, he's even more excited about the latest TEP kit coming on to the market this month. "It's a cheap, simple robotic arm which will move in two planes and cost only pound;5. The nearest competitor educational robot arms cost about pound;400," he says. "We'd like to think that TEP has provided schools with genuine access to technology, design and engineering." At pound;5 a robot arm it certainly will.
Technology Enhancement Programme, 47 Red Lion Court, London EC4A 3EB. Tel: 0171 583 0900. Fax: 0171 583 0909. E-mail: http:www.gtep.co.ukWeb site: http:www.gtep.co.ukgtep