Peep into the Year 5 classroom, and something extraordinary is taking place. A group of nine and 10-year-olds are building their own cars. The machines may not be life-size, but the attention to detail is just as exacting as if they were. The pupils have built the timber frames to precise measurements that will maximise their speed and thrust. Wooden wheels are added and then rubber bands or balloons are attached to the axles to control movement.
"The challenge was to build and design vehicles that used stored kinetic energy to travel the fastest, furthest and straightest route," says Samantha Brown, a teacher at Harwood Meadows Primary School in Bolton. "I believe that a little healthy competition takes learning forward."
However, the ultimate competition - and inspiration - for her pupils lies some 145 miles away in a technical centre in Bristol. This is where the audacious Bloodhound SSC (SuperSonic Car) is being built, a pound;10-million jet and rocket-powered beast designed to crash through the world land- speed record.
The car's driver, wing commander Andy Green, who broke the world record by achieving a speed of 763mph in 1997, hopes to raise the stakes once more by taking the Bloodhound SSC beyond 1,000mph this year in South Africa. But he insists it will all be in vain if the project does not carry schools along with it.
"If we get to 900mph and the car has run out of power or we have reached a safety limit, and every single child in the country has been involved in this engineering adventure, that is a huge success," he says. "If we get to 1,000mph and nobody cares, then it is a failure."
Mr Green is close to realising his passion for involvement by young people. Students from nursery to university age have been involved in the project, with nearly 4,000 schools signing up since its launch in October 2008.
The aim of the project is to inspire young people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, otherwise known as STEM subjects.
"The bottom line is we need more scientists and engineers if we are going to face and tackle global problems," explains Dave Rowley, education programme director at Bloodhound SSC. "How else are we going to solve global warming, create sustainable systems, feed the world and find new forms of transport that don't pollute?"
Demand for highly trained people who are competent in STEM subjects will only intensify as the economy recovers, according to a recent report from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). The survey found half of all employers fear there will be a shortage of the skills they need.
The problem lies in the dearth of school-aged pupils choosing to study STEM subjects. Another recent CBI study has shown that just 7 per cent of comprehensive pupils take at least one science A-level, while just 10 per cent take triple science at GCSE.
The first step in reversing this trend is to create a buzz around STEM. "We call it teaching STEM through stealth," says Mr Rowley. "A massive proportion of young people are getting excited because this project is about something that is extremely fast and more than a little dangerous."
That enthusiasm is almost tangible at Harehills Primary, a large school in Leeds with 700 pupils who speak some 35 languages. But it was not science or maths that was the catalyst for getting involved in the project a year ago. Instead, the incentive was to improve writing skills among Pakistani boys in Year 5.
"We needed something stimulating that would make boys want to write," says headteacher Margaret Broughton. "The project crosses all genres and gives writing a real purpose." Girls have enjoyed the project too, she observes, but there is no denying that Pakistani boys in particular seem to like fast cars.
Harehills already embraces a creative curriculum, which enables pupils to choose a topic-based project to work on every week. While working on Bloodhound SSC, pupils designed their own garages and posters, and created their own advertising material. A new task planned for this year will involve pupils writing business plans on how to run a garage and build a car from scratch.
"It's a fascinating project," Ms Broughton says. "It grabs attention, it is different and it is inspiring. It is not a cure for everything, but if teachers take it on and work creatively with it, it is a springboard for great things."
Bloodhound SSC did not bombard teachers with resources. Instead, it decided to work in partnership with organisations that already promoted STEM subjects, such as F1 in Schools, and Greenpower, which organises electric car races.
However, pupils at Harwood Meadows were able to make use of free Bloodhound SSC resources thanks to Primary Engineer, a not-for-profit organisation that provides teachers with training and resources in STEM subjects.
As a result, the pupils have created home-made cars that can travel at least three metres. Extra points are given to the fastest, plus those that travel in the straightest line over the quickest time.
"It has been quite challenging teaching Year 5 and 6 pupils about the difference between mass and weight," admits Mrs Brown, lead teacher for design and technology at Bolton local authority and a member of the Design and Technology Association primary advisory group.
She encourages pupils to keep track of the changes they make and retrace their footsteps if they make mistakes. This leads to a methodical way of managing their investigations, Mrs Brown says.
"The pupils see it as fun," she adds. "One girl said that I was sneaking science into lessons, almost as if I am hiding carrots in her dinner. They are learning at an appropriate level, but they have to think."
The pupils travelled to London to meet the Bloodhound SSC team and even shared notes with Mr Green on how to overcome design teething problems. Many of them had problems with their car wheels spinning, caused by a lack of traction. Some decided to add mass, while others chose to modify the wheels.
Mr Green revealed that he faced similar challenges with the Bloodhound SSC, but had to choose a material that would not break up or twist under such high speed.
"The enthusiasm was infectious," says Mrs Brown. Her pupils later decided they wanted to sponsor a component of the car, even if it was just a dust cap. They wrote to local businesses for support and established a fun STEM day at school, which raised more than pound;400.
Some of the proceeds went to the Bloodhound SSC project, while the rest was put to one side to fund the students' own engineering adventures, including resources and future visits to the Bristol site or the Science Museum in Manchester.
The Bloodhound SSC project has also inspired pupils to consider possible careers in engineering. Some of tomorrow's engineers may be found at Hafod-Y-Wern Community Primary in Wrexham. A Bloodhound SSC ambassador came to the school to help them create miniature Bloodhound SSC cars, using cardboard templates and air from balloons to power straw exhaust pipes. The activity tied in with curriculum topics dealing with rockets, drag and friction.
Video clips about the world land-speed record fired the pupils up, but it was the miniature cars themselves that caught their imagination. "I was surprised just how much our Year 6s took to it," says Joanne Hewitt, a teacher at Hafod-Y-Wern. "Our school is in quite a deprived area, so it's important to make them aware of opportunities out there. Without these sorts of activities, they would probably have little access to these feats of engineering."
Seeing a mock-up of the Bloodhound SSC race against a jet aeroplane made quite an impression on them, she added.
The activities help to open pupils' eyes to possibilities, explains Mrs Brown. "One girl told me that she didn't want to be a hairdresser or beauty therapist like her mum anymore," she says. "She thought she'd rather be a chemical engineer and design make-up: `That's where all the money's at', she said."
The Bloodhound SSC project is not about a very fast car, Mrs Brown believes. It's about social mobility in action.
Bloodhound SSC objectives
- To create a national surge in the popularity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
- To bring coherence to the promotion of STEM interventions in education.
- To extend appreciation of "extreme" engineering.
- To create an iconic project, based on sound research and technology, that involves pupils.
- To break the world land-speed record.