Dancing with robots sparks relationships

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Kerri Smith visits an innovative cross-phase project.

A rapt 11-year-old audience looks on as a robot makes its way across the floor, turns to the left, wiggles, and then plays itself a tune to conclude its task. This might start to sound like the latest Star Wars instalment - but it is in fact just one part of a "hands-on" science scheme taking place at 11 primary schools in Somerset.

The project is managed and run by primary teacher Iain Muton-Phillips.

He operates a "travelling science show", equipped with a mobile lab full of computers, test tubes and rockets. Today, he's brought a fleet of laptop-controlled robots. He delivers a mission to a Year 6 class from St Benedict's School in Glastonbury: "I want your robots to walk round this table from this start line, and pause in the square over there." Heads nod in anticipation. "Then collect the stranded toy, come back to the line, and do a celebratory dance. Not you, the robot."

The six groups, each kitted out with robot and computer, can't wait to get started. The scheme is funded by Crispin School in Street, a technology college and lead school in the Leading Edge Partnership programme. It is designed to extend the primary curriculum and to support the community dimension by forging links between secondary schools and their partner primaries.

Today's day-long robotics module is part of a series of four, targeted at areas of the design and technology and science curriculum, which primary schools find difficult to resource and in which they often lack expertise.

The other three modules cover heating and dissolving materials, forces and motion, and designing and building an "island shelter" from wood and other materials that Iain supplies.

The forces and heating modules have been designed to fit with "physical processes", and "materials and their properties", two sections of the KS2 science curriculum. The other two modules target DT aspects that primary pupils are less likely to have come across, but will encounter at secondary school. This provides a nice balance between reinforcing things that are already being taught, and introducing new material. The DT modules are a neat way of introducing ideas such as using computer-aided design to make products that fit a brief, and selecting the correct tools and materials to produce them.

The practical aspect clearly appeals to the pupils. "I don't think our robot is as clever as R2D2," James tells me, "but I've never been able to use a computer to control one before." Is this his favourite session out of the four? "I like all of them."

Iain is convinced that the "awe and wonder" factor is a big part of the scheme's success. But it's by no means all that the project achieves. The days also provide memorable examples of ideas that can be dry to teach and tricky to grasp, abstract concepts such as magnetic attraction and repulsion, or changes to materials, such as dissolving or condensing.

"Learning concepts from a day of practical tasks makes them so much more real," Iain says. The idea is clearly catching on - other nearby federations are already interested in buying into the idea's success. It's obvious that its appeal lies in the capacity to inject the wow factor into science and technology. "Every day and every class is different," Iain tells me, "but these modules all have three things in common: they work, they inspire, and above all, they're fun."

Iain's scheme comes at a price: the total cost absorbs all funding (Pounds 40,000) allocated to the "community dimension" from Crispin School's technology college status. This covers equipment (seven robotics set-ups at pound;200 apiece; average cost of glassware pieces for the heating module pound;60), travel and Iain's full-time salary.

The scheme has taken full advantage of Government funding for schools aimed at the "community dimension"; there are also similar amounts of cash available from other schemes, including Excellence in Cities and Education Action Zones, or from specialist status schools such as science or technology colleges.

* To contact Iain Muton-Phillips email: shazandee@hotmail.com

To contact Bob Smith, TC manager at Crispin email: RSmith1@educ.somerset.gov.uk

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