At a school in Shrewsbury, girls are doing something unusual - they're taking an interest in electronics. Yolanda Brooks meets the husband-and-wife teaching team helping students break with tradition
We allegedly live in more enlightened times, but there are still many areas of life where boys will be boys and girls will be girls. Take design and technology (Damp;T). There are lots of options, but exam statistics show that subject choices are still split decisively down gender lines.
The 2002 Damp;T examination results from the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (AQA) show that electronics, resistant materials, and systems and control are the favourite choices for boys while girls prefer textiles and food technology (see figures).
For most Damp;T teachers, this is no surprise, but for those who want their students to buck a few trends, it can be frustrating. So how do you persuade students to choose something that suits them, rather than drifting with the crowd?
At Belvidere School in Shrewsbury, Damp;T is a compulsory exam subject and each year around 150 students take a GCSE in resistant materials, textiles, food technology, systems and control, or graphics. Like most other schools, student subject options were stubbornly traditional until two students wanted to use textiles in their systems and control project. It helped that the school's electronics teacher and textiles teacher were married.
Once presented with the challenge, husband-and-wife team Charles and Heather Denscombe set about finding a solution. They discovered the problem was not with the electronics itself, but with the final product. "The girls wanted to do electronics of some sort because they found it interesting, but they thought they would be bored with the actual end product," says their textiles teacher Heather.
After much head-scratching and discussion, a student produced a large snakes and ladders play mat, which made noises when panels were pressed. "Although it was very crude, it was a first," says Heather. "And you only need one or two before things take off."
Abbey Cullen, aged 14, is among the current crop of students who are mixing textiles and electronics for their GCSE systems and control project and has taken up the idea of the play mat incorporating movement and sound. When she chose her Damp;T subject option, her first instinct was to opt for textiles. "I looked at what they had done before," she says. "Then I decided if I incorporated the electronics as well it might be more interesting and more of a challenge."
None of the students I spoke to had much fear of the electronic aspect of the course because it has been on the Belvidere curriculum since Year 7. In fact it is the textiles work that gets neglected, explains Heather, "because they are so involved in making the circuit boards and making them complicated, when they come to put the textile parts together, they find they have to change the wiring and that's when they come back after school".
Fifteen-year-old Laura Sheehan, who is producing an electronic teddy bear, has discovered that she prefers circuit boards to sewing. "I've found the textiles quite hard because I'm not very good at sewing, but I thought if I did textiles and electronics I would get a feel for both of them."
Interactive textiles projects are now common sights in the display areas of Belvidere's smart new Damp;T block. Although play mats are still a favourite design option, other projects have included a temperature-controlled pet blanket, a device to measure the thermal qualities of quilting materials and a railway safety jacket fitted with lights. The play mats are now more sophisticated than the original prototypes with movement and heat-sensitive materials routinely being included.
Although the project has managed to encourage more girls to stick with electronics, it has also inspired a few more boys to use textiles in their final projects.
The key to encouraging a wider interest in electronics is for the electronics specialists to make the most of the expertise of other colleagues, says Charles, who is head of the Damp;T department and the school's electronics specialist. "The problem I've got with electronics is that I'm in the business of making innards," he says. "It is finding other teachers to work with so that we can create the outer product that's important, so being husband and wife has been quite useful."
Running a department where electronics has a high profile also has an effect. In most schools it is neglected and seen as the most feared subject in the Damp;T curriculum, but at Belvidere, Charles has put electronics centre-stage.
Eleven years ago - after 23 years in production engineering - he went to the school on teaching practice. From an old library and a few old work benches he started teaching electronics, and the children soon caught his infectious enthusiasm for the subject.
"Electronics has always been my hobby," he says, "and I'm one of those lucky people who can teach their hobby."
The number of girls that take systems and controls varies year to year from around five to 12. While it's not a huge leap in numbers, it is a positive change, says assistant head of technology Mark Walton. "Success breeds success," he says, "and if you get 10 girls interested one year and they have a brilliant time, the next year you will get more takers because we get them to talk to the Year 9 students when they are thinking about their options."
Teachers at Belvidere are applying for technology college status and are already involved in electronics and CADCAM projects with another local school. With the extra funding that technology status brings, the school hopes to encourage an electronics and textiles revolution in other primary and secondary schools.
Number of Assessment and qualifications alliance students taking Damp;T in 2002
Electronic products 10,955 1,125
Resistant materials 50,604 14,838
Systems and control 7,788 880
Food technology 17,437 49,005
Textiles technology 956 29,861
Figures supplied by AQA