Hang Ups

28th October 1994 at 00:00
I hope she won't mind me saying so, but 15-year-old Chavonne Nash isn't the sort of person I'd immediately associate with the automobile industry. She's too ambitious to be an Arthur Daley on a second-hand car lot. She's too lively to ever be fodder on some mind-numbing automobile production line; and far too extrovert to ever be tucked away in a back-room as a slide-rule-wielding, pipe-sucking boffin.

So, it was odd finding her, and some of her classmates from Bacon's College, Rotherhithe, being shown off as the industry's hope for the future on a stand sponsored by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) in this year's Motor Show at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre.

The pupils from Bacon's College, like those from four other schools, were spending a stint at the show demonstrating just how adept they are at handling sophisticated computer-aided-design (CAD) packages.

Teachers who use computers regularly in their classrooms can easily take their students' proficency at IT for granted, forgetting how remarkably accomplished the kids really are. Visitors to the show, however, couldn't help but be impressed none more so than John Major. Anxious minders, keen to rush him to photo opportunities at 200 other stands, were peeved to find that he insisted on spending at least a quarter of an hour with the youngsters formal recognition, if any were needed, that the future of British car manufacture, and with it, the country's economic well being, depends on encouraging young people to cultivate their IT skills.

At every level, the automobile industry like so many others - relies increasingly on computers. They are used at every stage from the first brainstorming doodles for new models down to the detailed final blueprints. On the production line, most of the hard work is now being done by those long-suffering robotic devices that never seem to complain about too much overtime or ever quibble about not being in a union.

What's more, silicon chips are as integral a part of the modern car as rust was on the dear old Allegro. Indeed, by the turn of the century, it is estimated that electronic wizardry will account for as much as 30 per cent of the cost of a car. Ye olde-worlde garage mechanics those lads with oily rags and smug smiles are being re-christened "automobile technicians" because in future their ability to cope with complex electronic circuitry is going to be every bit as important as their current skills with a spanner, or the aplomb with which they can overcharge without blushing. So, if the automobile industry is to have a competent work force, it has to play its part in convincing young people to persevere with technology and, in particular, with their computer lessons.

Hence an ambitious and imaginative educational project which is being sponsored by Fords and the thousand other companies in SMMT. They want to encourage schools to use the various facets of the automobile industry as a focus for science and technology teaching. They'll provide workpacks and suchlike, but what they'd really like is for each secondary school to forge links with manufacturers and traders in its locality. It would give the industry a chance to make contact with potential employees, and provide schools with the opportunity to exploit the resources and expertise that the industry can make available. The whole enterprise is being co-ordinated by CREST, the government sponsored agency dedicated to the lofty ideal of promoting "creativity in science and technology". It's far too early to say if the scheme will work, but teachers responsible for IT and technology certainly owe it to Chavonne and her generation to give it a go.

For details contact a local Science and Technology Regional Organisation (SATRO) or CREST at 1 Frederick Sanger Road, Surrey Research Park, Guilford, Surrey GU2 5YD

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