'I want to know how people do that'

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Where would we be today without engineering? Young pupils are finding out the answer in after-school clubs across Scotland

Engineering is a strangely invisible subject. It's not part of the school curriculum and many of us have only the vaguest notion of how it's done or who does it - a man in grease-stained overalls perhaps?

It is an unhealthy position for the discipline that shaped the modern world, says Graham Robertson, a consultant engineer who runs the after- school engineering club for senior pupils at Kilmacolm Primary in Inverclyde.

"At the start, I explained that everything around them has had engineers designing and making it - everything. We talked them through a day. They get up in the morning and switch on the lights; they turn on the tap; they go to school in a car or bus - all because of engineering.

"I wanted to get them interested, to start them thinking: `I want to know how people do that.'"

Kilmacolm Primary's young engineers club is part of an Inverclyde-wide initiative, funded by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, which has seen science and engineering clubs set up in four secondary schools (out of seven) and 15 primary schools (out of 27).

The high uptake for a scheme schools opt into says a lot about the benefits to pupils, believes Jane Martin, SCDI project manager. "We support more than 320 Young Engineers and Science Clubs all over Scotland, around two-thirds in secondary schools and a third in primaries.

"But there was only one in Inverclyde. So we got Determined to Succeed funding to talk to all the schools in this authority - and in Dundee - to explain how to set clubs up and run them, and how we could help."

Starter packs, made by a company called Imagineering, were supplied to participating schools. "I had no engineering experience and was newly qualified," says Isobel Sutherland, an Inverclyde teacher. "So I was happy to take it on but a bit unsure what we'd be doing.

"But it was great. The instructions were clear and there were lots of things for the kids to make - aeroplanes, a compass, Morse code keys and buzzers. If we were building the plane, say, I'd get the children to do some research on the history of the aeroplane first. Then they would build it.

"One of the boys happened to mention that his dad was an engineer. So I immediately contacted him and asked if he'd like to get involved. Graham has been running the club every Wednesday now for the past six months."

That level of commitment from a professional engineer is unusual, says Ms Martin. "It's great if you can get it. More often, a club will be teacher- led, with an engineer coming in once or twice a term to set the kids a challenge."

Right now, Graham is setting Kilmacolm's by-now confident young engineers a real challenge - to design and build a machine that will carry a raw egg safely "across a bottomless chasm".

"I want you to think first about which materials would be strong enough," he invites the dozen youngsters and gets a variety of responses, from steel to Sellotape. "Now think about how you might make it move. You're going to design your system first and then make it. That's how engineers work."

Hannah Scanlon knew very little about that before she came to the club, she says. "Neither of my parents are engineers. But I enjoy practical stuff, like experiments in science. So I thought this would be fun - and it is. If you make a mistake, you learn from it. I like building things and seeing how they turn out."

Alistair Robertson's parents are both engineers, so he thought he knew what it was all about. "But I've learnt a lot at this club - like how many different types of engineer there are. I like having my dad doing it because it gives me confidence and I don't mind asking him questions."

As the youngsters pack up and get ready to go, Graham reminds them there is no club next week as they're off to Wynmarleigh Hall for outdoor education. "While you're there, promise me you'll keep thinking as engineers," he says.

"We will," they chorus.

Young engineers and science clubs:


Graham Robertson:


Egg challenge:

www.youngeng.orgindex.asp? page=1060.

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