Gerald Haigh reports on an innovative approach to science and technology
TECHNOLOGY STARTERS. Age range 9 to 12. BBC2, Mondays, 11.25am, repeated Thursdays 1.25pm. Teacher's notes Pounds 2.50. BBC Education 0181 746 1111.
It seems unlikely that the Romans, who forged the first European Union, were able to build their Euro-routes without coming across local protestors hiding in the trees. In fact, as "The Open Road?", the first programme in Technology Starters explains, the threat of rebellion was one of the reasons they built the roads in the first place.
This 10-programme science and technology series is the result of an innovative approach to schools television - it was commissioned by the European Broadcasting Union and involved educational broadcasters in 11 European countries.
British independent production company Case Television actually made the series, under the eye of a steering committee of people from the countries involved. "We submitted about 20 ideas for possible technology programmes - bridges, transport and so on - and the countries picked the 10 programmes they wanted, and we got on with it," says Case Television's Tom Stanier.
The steering committee saw rough cuts and put ideas forward as the series developed. Some principles were clear from the outset. "They wanted a human element, not just pictures of cog wheels," says Stanier. "And they wanted to have an open end to each programme - so that the series is not saying that technology solves problems perfectly. They also wanted problems that were relevant to children - so the roads programme includes material on traffic jams and pollution."
Each country also had its preferences for presentation. "The Dutch wanted a lot of good clear animations to illustrate how things work. The Germans wanted to hear a flavour of the language being spoken in each country. The British preference was for the kind of investigative approach that characterises national curriculum technology," he explains.
This approach is illustrated by " The Open Road?" The question mark in the title is later taken up in an extensive discussion of traffic problems, illustrated with film from various European countries. Some technological solutions are briefly covered, from traffic lights to the ambitious computer-controlled traffic routing system being used in Munich.
Basic road technology is covered with diagrams of road construction techniques throughout history and film of modern high-way building. The various traffic shots, incidentally, might provoke good classroom discussion about which countries they were shot in - although Birmingham children will have no trouble with the brief sequence of a man being almost run down by a bus with "Walsall" on the front.
Other programmes cover railways, water power, alternative energy sources, bridges, tunnels, communications, newspapers, flood control and the heat treatment of milk. In each case, considerable use is made of film from one or more of the participating countries: the Netherlands, for instance, is a source of expertise and experience in flood control.
Teachers brought up in the British tradition of investigation are well served by John Stringer's extensive teacher notes which provide lots of ideas for classroom work around the principles shown on the programmes. There are clear ideas for making bridges, circuits, cheese, windmills and other artefacts from easily available materials, and conducting experiments with them. No teacher could possibly complain that this is a series which unquestioningly celebrates the benefits of technological progress.
The problem of the participants' different languages is overcome with a voiceover - each country's broadcasts have their own separate narrative. Snatches of overheard conversation provide some linguistic identity, and the only presenter is "The Runner" - a silent linking character who adds mime, facial expression and humour to each subject.
Tom Stanier explains: "What you can't do is have people talking to camera or saying something that's of critical importance in a particular language. If they're just chatting as they work that's fine."
The series aims to provide children with a broader perspective than is often found in schools science and technology teaching. Steering committee member Lothar Humburg of the educational department of West Deutsche Rundfunk in Germany suggests: "in European primary schools, Europe is not brought into perspective. We want the children at least to have an inkling that whatever has been achieved is not just thanks to the inventions of one country but that it takes many people in many different countries, sharing ideas."