Primary schools were set the task of devising something new. But the greater challenge was selecting a winner, writes Douglas Blane.
In a secluded corner of the first-floor lounge at the Sheraton Hotel in Edinburgh, a physicist, a businessman and a patents examiner are having a hard time. "I was dreading this part," says Heather Reid, the BBC weather presenter and chair of the Institute of Physics in Scotland.
Scottish Enterprise's chief executive officer, Robert Crawford, agrees: "I hate having to disappoint young children."
The panel is completed by Andrew Jenner of the Patents Office in London. All three of them have been trying for some time to choose the winner of Glasgow Science Centre's Be An Inventor challenge for primary schools.
"Let's go through them again," Mr Crawford says. "There's the glowing cows, the clever clogs, the heated headband, the musical lunchbox, the wormery, the millennium coasters, the ..."
These products of youthful inventiveness, together with their youthful inventors, the competition's 13 regional finalists from around Scotland, have been on display all morning. The judges have been examining them and gently interrogating the pupils about the route their class took from blank pieces of paper to ingenious devices. Because the process is of more importance than the product, the purpose of the challenge being educational rather than commercial, the quality of the pupils' responses is crucial. This partly explains the judges' difficulties because, despite the imposing surroundings, all the children seem remarkably relaxed and articulate, as well as noticeably keen to give credit to their colleagues.
"We all sat around brainstorming," explains George, of Lathallan School in Johnshaven, Angus, "and one person thought of a heated fleece. Then I thought of heated earmuffs and Hamish over there thought of these heated headbands to keep skiers' and hill-climbers' ears warm.
"We looked into patents and found there was one in America for something like it, but nothing in this country.
"We've sold a lot of them already. We have our own website and we've written a jingle. Would you like to hear it?" The children gather round and begin to sing: "When you're out there in the mountains and it's going for your ears, what you really need is heated headgear I" Elgol Primary in Broadford, Skye, was the regional winner for the Highlands and Islands, despite having only 14 pupils. Ruth, Sara and Christopher take it in turns to explain why they think putting tags that glow in the dark on cows' ears is a good idea. "People run into cows with their cars at night because they don't see them. The cows all wear ear tags but you can't see them either. We wanted to make their ear tags shine, and we've done some market research and the crofters round our school think it's a great idea."
Research carried out by the pupils at Kilmacolm Primary, Inverclyde, revealed that a staggering 132 children in one nursery put their shoes on the wrong feet. The remedy they devised is beautifully simple: coloured arrows on the inside of each shoe, which point towards each other when the child has got it right.
Henry McLeish, the Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, who was at the hotel for the 5th International Education Business Partnership Conference, is impressed. "When I was young," he confides, "I used to have difficulty pickin the right shoe. This would have helped me a lot."
Meanwhile the judges are forcing themselves to eliminate contenders: "This teacher answered most of the questions I put to the children"; "This idea is very good but hasn't been taken far enough."
Their efforts soon become a matter of accentuating the positive rather than eliminating the negative: "This really grabbed me, but that class has done more research"; "This was so elegant, so simple: if it was only about the quality of the invention, it's the one I'd go for."
After a final attempt at compromise - "We can't have joint winners can we?" - the winners are eventually chosen, the organisers breathe a sigh of relief and the judges depart to the prize-giving.
The Be An Inventor challenge for primaries 4-7 was launched by the Glasgow Science Centre in September last year. Schools received an activities pack containing work cards and 5-14 curriculum links and teachers were invited to an in-service training session. "The challenge lends itself especially well to environmental studies," says organiser Gillian Lang, "but it can also be used for language, expressive arts, mathematics and music."
"The children worked really well together. Their co-operation skills were superb," says Joanne McGill, P6 teacher at Balcurvie Primary, which won the challenge with a musical lunchbox. "The project covered a lot of the curriculum: language, in reporting, researching and discussing; maths, with the measuring and construction; science and technology, of course; art, in the design of the thing; and even music - they made a wee jingle and we sent a group off to a recording studio. It was like a web that brought all the subjects together.
"I liked the fact, too, that all the children got involved, so you weren't just dealing with those who are good at writing, say, with the others left out. It was a fun way of doing things and reached a lot of children that maybe have difficulties, because it was practical and they could see something at the end of it. Before they knew it, they'd written reports and done all sorts of things they wouldn't normally do."
"I was very surprised, pleasantly so, by the amount of oral work involved," says Mrs Ford, the P7 teacher at Cumbernauld Primary, which won third prize for the millennium leaf coasters. "It wasn't all about science and technology and testing materials.
"Another surprise was how good the children were at putting the project folder together. Everyone had a page to do and I was amazed by how different they all were. The kids seemed able to carry this imaginative thing over into how they were going to present it.
"I thought I knew this class very well but they were able to do things that really surprised me."
For information on the new Be An Inventor challenge, contact Gillian Lang, Glasgow Science Centre, tel 0141 420 5000, email firstname.lastname@example.org.Information on other Education for Work schemes is available from Setnet, email email@example.com www.setnet.org.uk
THE BE AN INVENTOR CHALLENGE WINNERS
1st The Groovie Groovie lunchbox: a CD player and lunchbox combined. By P6, Balcurvie Primary, Windygates, Fife
2nd Heated headbands for cool skiers and hill-climbers. By Form 4, Lathallan School, Johnshaven, Angus.
3rd Millennium Leaf Coasters: each with a preserved leaf. By7 P7, Cumbernauld Primary, North Lanarkshire