Forging an industry foothold

31st October 2003 at 00:00
When Kingston University's motorbike team was in trouble, engineering students at the local city technology college raced to the rescue. Jerome Monahan reports

Friday morning in East Putney and Paul Sardar, vice principal of ADT City Technology College is telling me the difference between cast and engineered aluminium. It has a crucial bearing on a project his 40 Year 11 engineering students are tackling for the motorbike racing team at nearby Kingston University. He has bashed pieces of both sorts of the metal. The cast aluminium has snapped, revealing an irregular crystalline structure which, he says, accounts for its fragility. The other strip, shaped by machine tool, has proved far stronger and is only slightly bent. "This is why the team have a problem with their footrests," he says. "Their bikes are currently cast, and in races the footrests tend to snap off even in the slightest accident." And that's where the ADT students come in.

At this point in the two-year double award course, thanks to recently forged links with Kingston University, their "practical engineered product" unit has shifted from a wind-generator project to a real-life problem and an expectant racing team requiring a solution by Christmas. The brief is demanding. Not only must they come up with prototypes capable of supporting a rider, they have to exceed the models the racers are currently using, in terms of both weight reduction and adjustability. Paradoxically, they'll have to build in some kind of structural weakness. "If the footrest proves too robust, there's a danger the bike frame will suffer, leading to the entire bike being written off," explains third-year Kingston student and racing team member Mark Simpson.

Once a design has been accepted, it will be possible for the team to get a stock of footrests, rather than having to carry out lengthy repairs each time one is damaged. As well as concept sketches and a clear methodology, the students, working in groups, will be expected to produce a solid model of their chosen design, and this will have to survive demanding load-bearing tests as part of their final assessment.

They are also expected to keep a detailed evaluation of their work. This will make up a significant proportion of their coursework portfolios, which account for a third of their marks. The fact that this will be internally assessed is central, says Paul Sardar, to the attractiveness of engineering at GCSE. "Not only does the course place weight on the tutor's professional judgment, it also recognises that formal examinations provide only one form of evidence," he adds. "In effect, everything students do in workshop or classroom contributes towards the qualification."

In the four years when the college offered the Part 1 Engineering GNVQ (now replaced by GCSE), the pass rate was 100 per cent. "But there are some uncertainties in this new course," says Paul Sardar. "We don't yet know what will be in the final examination and how it will be evaluated.

Students will not get a chance to sit the exam in the spring with the option of working to improve their grades by the summer."

The link with Kingston Univeresity is the great achievement of Paul Sardar's year. "It is a requirement of the course that students investigate the application of engineering technology across a range of industries, and Roehampton also specialises in aeronautical engineering." ADT's students have already made one visit to see the university's Learjet in its massive hangar, and they will return to investigate the engineering that governs its construction.

"Making such a connection is time-consuming," he says. "I have been amazed by Kingston's commitment. Their first visit involved four senior staff members who spent an entire afternoon here." The link grew from an invitation he received from Kingston University to attend a flight simulator programming award ceremony. "This collaboration has grown so quickly largely because of ADT's enthusiasm and our own concern for widening participation," says senior engineering lecturer Paul Brandon.

"The only issue has been devising a project that fits in well with GCSE requirements, but now we have the template it should be easy to reproduce in subsequent years."

ADT's students are thrilled to have a real-life challenge. "It involves detective work," says Iyishia Samuel-Bielby, 15. "We are really having to problem-solve to come up with something that is light and durable - it takes a lot of mind power." For Talha Khokhar, the joy of engineering is the way it draws on knowledge from so many subjects. "I have to use maths and physics, and this project requires an understanding of metals too," he says. He also points out how it supports his other studies, providing practical ex-perience of science theory from traditional GCSE classes.

The students have been carefully nurtured at ADT; by the time they embark on a Year 9 engineering taster - designing a screwdriver - they have had three years of working with materials in Damp;T behind them. The screwdriver unit also gives them an opportunity to work on the college's extensive and costly computer-aided designmanufacturing (CADCAM) facilities. These enable students to create digital designs, translating them into instructions for a variety of automated machine tools. "Students quickly become addicted to the process," explains ADT's Damp;T curriculum manager Tao Nguyen. "Once they've drawn the item, the drive is to make it and hold it.

But none of this is cheap - our current CADCAM units are pound;10,000 each and 3D laser units are about pound;16,000 apiece."

For Paul Sardar, engineering is a crucial element of the college's commitment to vocational education. "Despite the huge reduction in the UK's dependence on heavy engineering, we still have a significant part to play in catering to industry's specialist high-tech engineering needs and there are severe shortages of quality engineers in the UK. Engineering design is all around us - even the pen you are using to write down this interview had to be engineered."

ADT College University at Roehampton Vale GCSE engineering double;site=OCRamp;oid=2120amp;server=PRODUKTIONEDEXCEL GCSE engineering double award

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