West of Scotland primaries brought the past and future to life for the Young Technologist Challenge. Douglas Blane reports.
Until scientists discover how to detect and harness theoretical phenomena such as wormholes in space and cosmic strings, travelling in time is likely to remain science fiction rather than fact and be powered by the imagination. The colourful and creative exhibits at the finals of the schools' Time Travel 2000 competition clearly demonstrate that youthful imagination can be an effective time-machine.
In the Mitchell Library, Glasgow, teams of judges were transported back to the age of the dinosaurs, then forward to ancient Egypt, the Wars of Independence, the Blitz and the Swinging Sixties. Then they were off to the future, trying to adapt to an Earth whose ozone layer has been destroyed, exploring space and colonising planets.
At each of the 25 exhibits, pupils keenly answered the judges' questions and demonstrated the moving parts of their models, built with pulleys, gears, hydraulics, solar cells and batteries.
"I thought training for Gladiators was hard," said celebrity judge Ali Paton, alias Siren, "but today really tested me. There was so much to look at. I was really impressed by the effort, motivation and imagination all the children had put into their models."
Devised and run by the education department of the WISE Group, a charity promoting energy conservation in the community, the annual Young Technologist Challenge for 5-14 environmental studies provides older primary pupils with the chance to participate in a substantial project from initial concept, through design to construction, testing and finally presentation. This year 823 west of Scotland schools were invited to participate and 56 responded.
A notable first-time entry was Drumlemble Primary, a small school in Argyll. Headteacher Anne Marie Elliott brought her Primary 56 class by bus from the south of Kintyre, while the children's vision of Antarctica was entrusted to the janitor's car.
"We were maybe at a slight disadvantage with our children being that bit young," said Mrs Elliott, "but we thought we'd give it a go. I wasn't very confident with technology at the beginning, but in a small school like ours there's a lot of teamwork.
"The WISE Group came out for a workshop with the kids and provided a resource pack and teachers' notes. Their support was tremendous. It has improved my confidence with technology."
Pupil Eilidh demonstrated the working parts of the model. "This bit is called the winching station of Antarctica," she said with a smile, "because it winches food up and down to the base.
"We id have some problems getting the models to work, but I think that would be normal when you're designing things, and it all worked eventually."
The challenge has been used by many teachers to cover several areas of the curriculum.
"We were doing a project on the Second World War," said Mark Weir of Netherlee Primary, East Renfrewshire, showing a model of London during the Blitz with moving searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and burning buildings. "All the language and a lot of the maths for the term stemmed from the project - measure work, functional writing, imaginative writing, empathising with life during the war."
At the prize-giving ceremony tension mounted as each school was presented with a certificate by the stars of the boy band Mero. "The girls who were going up all got a kiss," said Stuart of Drumlemble Primary. "I was off before they could kiss me."
When the overall winner, Carmunnock Primary in Glasgow, was announced there was great elation. "I was over the moon," said pupil Kimberley. "Some of us were crying and some were jumping up and down. We'd been working on it for seven months."
Teacher Sharon Hunter said: "Before we built anything we spent a lot of time thinking around the idea. I got each of the children to write a story and illustrate it in little hand-made books. Eventually they agreed on a storyline set in the year 2050 after a giant meteorite had hit the Earth. Then we dramatised it and made costumes. We looked at the visual art side and made huge fabric banners, influenced by artists such as Paul Klee, Kandinsky and Matisse."
She explained: "Learning in a context is far more meaningful. I'm always on the look-out for anything that will motivate children's learning and teach them thinking skills. If they come up with an idea, I encourage them to develop it, give them time to work it out and see if it's possible.
"Kids are all born creative, but when they get to a certain age it can come to a halt. You have to provide an environment that fosters creativity."
For more information on the Young Technologist Challenge, contact the WISE Group's education manager, Cathy Noble, tel 0141 303 3131
Overall winner and Best newcomer Carmunnock Primary, Glasgow
Runners-up: Kilcreggan Primary, Argyll and Bute and Eaglesham Primary, East Renfrewshire
Special merit: Drumlemble Primary, Argyll amp; Bute
Written work: Netherlee Primary, East Renfrewshire
Innovative feature: Langside Primary, Glasgow
Special recognition: Isabel McGillivray, of Eaglesham Primary, who retires this year and whose classes have been finalists every year