Pupil power gets a push

25th June 2004 at 01:00
A fun engineering project gives children a taste for grown-up DIY. Chris Fautley reports

There's a saying on the Isle of Wight: "Island roads are different," and in Bembridge one of the vehicles is too. Unlikely to see action on the island's rustic roads, it has, however, had a thorough work-out at Bembridge C of E Primary School (above). For this vehicle, or more accurately go-kart, is pupil-powered - in both propulsion and design.

About 140cm in length and 82cm wide, it comfortably seats two of its Year 2 designers. "Power" is via a push-bar, with steering through a fully functional steering wheel.

The idea of Year 2 teachers Barbara Palmer and Rosie Martin, the go-kart originated from the vehicles unit of the Damp;T syllabus. The initial objective, says Barbara, was for each child to design and make a model wheeled vehicle for a purpose - to carry something.

Cotton reels, plastic, cardboard, drinking straws and dowling were among the potential wheel and axle-building materials tested before each child designed their own model. They then prepared a shopping list of components before assembling it.

Models built and tested, Barbara and Rosie considered going one step further. Both like to link class-based work to the real world. "We think it's absolutely vital," Rosie explains. "The results prove the effectiveness of doing these things."

"We talked about how, when we were children, we had a go-kart with an orange box and pram wheels," Barbara adds. That generated huge excitement, especially as the children had already read about go-karts, and an idea was born. They enlisted the help of Terry Forrest, a parent and engineer whose wife works at the school and who had previously provided good help with school projects. They arranged for him to visit the school weekly for six weeks, his brief to build a wheeled vehicle with a purpose - "to have fun".

All 29 Year 2 pupils were involved from the outset, finally drawing up a design which incorporated everybody's ideas. "There was some very good group work," Rosie explains. "Having to listen to each other, evaluate other people's ideas." Construction material (timber, wheels, nuts and bolts) was purchased from a DIY superstore for less than pound;60. The go-kart was then assembled in stages: one week, they focused on wheels and axles, for example. The steering presented particular difficulties. "We imagined a bit of rope!" Barbara recalls. Terry finally devised a mechanism that worked via a steering wheel.

The project took 18 hours in total. At the end of each session, Terry reported back to the teachers to advise what needed to be done, and the preparation required for the next session. He constantly checked what they wanted to achieve from a Damp;T perspective.

The two teachers are agreed that projects such as this can be undertaken even if you have not got an engineering parent, although it is preferable to have somebody with a practical background. "Plan in little stages, learning as you go along - so long as you have someone who is able to use tools safely and effectively," is the advice. While the children could not use some of the "adult" equipment, they were at least able to see what could be achieved.

The go-kart is in kit form and therefore easily disassembled. Its construction, however, will not be used in future projects: design is a critical part - and that has already been done. Not that design is the entire story: cross-curricular links include maths - measuring; science - forces and movement; citizenship - teamwork; literacy - explaining and listening.

Headteacher Tina Baker was particularly pleased to see a father involved.

"By showing what we have produced, it's going to encourage more fathers in," she says.

She knew the children would be excited at building something they could use. "The idea that Barabara and Rosie came up with surprised me a bit," she says. "Very often with design technology a lot of teachers find it quite difficult. By opening it up and coming up with, 'Let's build a go-kart', I was fully behind them."

So what have the children got out of it? "They are so proud they have made it. And I think that's very, very important," Tina answers. "Relating what they are doing to the real world," adds Rosie. "Nice as their models are, they are still only models. Learning at six years old is all about the excitement, isn't it?"

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