Roger Frost explores the liberating qualities of computers for design and make activities. Pupils hit problems the second they're asked to design on paper, " says John Abrahams of Woolwich Polytechnic school, London. "Some have the skills to express themselves and make progress, others flounder not because they haven't got good ideas, but because they just can't draw. They watch their peers and despair."
John Abrahams, the school's technology specialist and IT co-ordinator, uses computers to help pen-frozen pupils turn their ideas into action. His projects are accessible and their contexts almost classic. What is special is that the computer lets pupils experiment on screen, feeling secure that a mistake or a change of plan will not mean disaster. For example, pupils can focus a design project on a new range of sports cosmetics. They might consider a box for a shower soap and use a drawing program to decorate a ready-made opened-out box on the screen. They could use the program to add a sporty logo and some sporty lettering, and deck the box with coloured shapes and pre-drawn computer art. The box can be scaled up or down or pupils might construct an entirely new package, working out the geometry, how it folds and where the tabs should be - all on the computer.
For those who can't draw for toffee, every line is crisp and tidy. Or, Mr Abrahams adds, "they aspire to higher quality work, and those who can't create work from scratch are not held back - IT is such a great leveller".
Pupils can design award certificates, looking at real paper examples or starting with part-finished ones on the computer. They can discuss who the award is for, why they got it and what they need on it; they can use the drawing program to add text, borders and flourishes; they might go on to make a trophy using IT to draw a series of alternatives, and elect to make one of them for real. Even young pupils with little more than a grip on a mouse can get a grip on designing.
They might arrange ready-made shapes using My World - Our Town. Here they design a town on the screen with a park, shops, main street and crossings. They pick up ready-made pictures of buildings, roads and junctions and fit them together on screen like Scalextric track. You can also get versions to design kitchens and gardens.
Take pupils to the park and discuss ways to reorganise the playground, or look around the school, car park or shops. You can ask them how they could make these better and form little committees to work at the computer. They can build a model town, block by block using a program which lets them draw, say, a house and print it out ready for cutting and gluing. This unique tool is called Tabs, the secondary version is Architech.
Or, using another program called Spex, pupils can turn a drawn plan into a 3-D view on the screen - and while they can't make the town on this one, they can visualise it before building it. This is brilliant.
But successful computer activities need more than good ideas, John Abrahams says: "Using the computer is no excuse for not preparing. You need to practise using the software and understand how it is enhancing the project. And you've got to be clear about what you're expecting from the kids and exactly where and how they access the computer."
Choosing your tools Drawing programs are very different from "painting" programs like Paintspa or RM ColourMagic. Without an artistic hand, they let you draw shapes, use pre-drawn ones and rearrange them easily.
For cosmetic work you could use Draw (Archimedes), or Clarisworks on the Macintosh or PC. On the PC there is well-rounded Micrografx Draw (no relation) which boasts a large library of ready-made drawings. Like Clarisworks, it allows you to see your work on a virtual page.
Where you want to use real measurements, make perpendiculars or projections, look at Autosketch (PC Windows), Techsoft's Designer 3 (Archimedes) and Design Tools (PC windows).
At the top end, there is Art Works (Archimedes) and the superb Micrografx Designer Technical Edition (PC Windows). This technical illustration program steps over the quirkiness of traditional design programs and offers thousands of drawings you can drag on to the page. There are also programs, such as Floorplan 3-D, Kitchen Design and Home Design, which are dedicated to a task but inexpensive enough to recommend.
* My World (Archimedes and PC Windows) from TAG Developments, 19 High Street, Gravesend, DA11 0BA.
* Tabs, Spex and ArchiTech (Archimedes) from Aspex Software, Heather House, Down Road, Tavistock, Devon PL19 9AG, tel: 01822 611060 * Techsoft, The Grange, Eryrs, Clwyd, CH7 4DB.
* Other programs from suppliers such as Commotion, Unit 11, Tannery Road, Tonbridge, TN9 1RF; Watford Electronics, 1 Finway, Dallow Road, Luton, LU1 1TR; or WindowLine MacLine, tel: 0181 401 1177