Roy West reports on a project delivering some remarkable systems and control work and sees what can happen when pupils get their hands on real industrial equipment.
Pupils in four north Wales schools have been sampling an unusual taste of industry in the classroom. And the 18-month pilot project involving industrial level control equipment known as PLCs has produced some thought-provoking results.
"Our pupils are using the same equipment and tackling the same kind of problems faced in almost every industry," says Frank Muraca, head of technology at Holywell High School, "and they take to it like ducks to water. In fact, the only difficulty is getting them to leave when the bell goes."
PLCs - programmable logic controllers - are the devices which make the physical link between computers and the real world. Even if we don't realise it, they're indispensable in just about every kind of process, from measuring cornflakes into packets to setting steel mills in operation, not to mention keeping planes in the air and ensuring the Blackpool illuminations keep twinkling.
As part of their systems and control work in the technology curriculum, GCSE pupils are often introduced to various simplified devices that reproduce the functions of PLCs. But Frank Muraca's experiences have convinced him that most pupils are perfectly capable of dealing with the real thing - and are far more enthusiastic as a result.
The interest generated among his own lower sixth group ought to bring a smile to the face of industrialists all over the country worried about where the next generation of skilled and motivated young people is coming from. It should also delight many people in education. As Frank Muraca points out: "The Government encourages pilot schemes and it would be nice if Gillian Shephard could come up here and see what can be achieved."
The story began when Holywell High, along with Ysgol Morgan Llwyd in Wrexham, Ysgol Brynhyfryd, Ruthin, and St Asaph's Ysgol Glan Clwyd became involved in a 12-month project initiated by Clwyd education authority and launched with funding from the Training and Enterprise Council for north east Wales.
With the backing of the Clwyd Education Business Partnership and industry support from E L Instruments of Wrexham, the schools were given the opportunity to explore the use of industrial level PLCs in the classroom context. Also involved was the Denbigh Technical and Vocational Education Centre which, with funding from the Technology Schools Initiative, provides technology learning experiences for schools and has also invested in PLC equipment.
The broad success of the project is clear in the enthusiastic report compiled by Clive Wood, Clwyd's inspectoradviser in technology. Ysgol Morgan Llywd found the work beneficial and has established firm links with industry. Ysgol Brynhyfryd is continuing to explore the potential for A-level courses, particularly in electronics, while Ysgol Glan Clwyd is giving a whole year group experience of the work as part of their GCSE course in design and technology.
All schools agreed that the project offered valuable insights for pupils into how industry works, although some voiced concern on the need for teachers to be fully trained in the equipment. In terms of the curriculum, there was also some doubt as to whether the use of PLCs would be understood - let alone recognised - by the examiners! These themes are echoed by Frank Muraca at Holywell, where, 12 months on, the project is certainly bearing remarkable fruit. On the wall behind the rows of computers in his airy technology room is a row of neat black boxes - 10 PLCs which the school has acquired with funding from the Welsh office through the Technology Schools Initiative.
Frank's Year 12 technology pupils have already devised various programs that demonstrate the functions of the PLCs, including an ingenious burglar alarm that used sensors and door controls in a model house to manoeuvre an intruder from room to room and finally trap him. They also show remarkable skill in customising the software and designing the screen interface for the various experiments they create to demonstrate the PLCs' functions and potential.
Already the star pupils are moving on to new challenges, such as making life easier for the next year group by tackling the awesome task of turning hefty volumes of impenetrable industry manuals into simple step-by-step instructions. "It takes them time, but it's no real trouble," says Frank Muraca with a bemused smile at the ease and speed with which his group have mastered the technology. "With the equipment we have now, we have the means to turn out brilliant industrialists, but the biggest need is to train our staff so they can stay ahead of the pupils."
A recent visit to British Steel to see PLCs in action helped greatly in this respect while further trips are planned to show pupils the role PLCs play in helping Kelloggs with their cornflakes and paper makers Kimberly Clark with their production processes. Sadly, Frank Muraca recognises that the achievements of many of his group can never be reflected in their qualifications: "This kind of thing promotes innovation and that is exactly what British industry needs. But how do you recognise innovation in an exam?" What he feels ought to be possible, however, is to recognise some of the practical skills his pupils are acquiring - in many cases almost as a by-product. For instance, turning those jargon-ridden technical manuals into simple plain English is giving them the skills of technical authors: "At the same time, they're producing all the reports on their work on the computer using desktop publishing, computer-aided design (CAD) and a range of other skills. It seems very unfair that for all this they can only earn a qualification in IT - and that is merely one element of GCSE technology. "
Looking at the dedication and interest of his own group, Frank Muraca has no doubts that, given motivated and trained teachers, PLCs can play a very valuable role in the classroom. While he recognises that using PLCs in the wrong context can be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, he feels that this professional equipment lends itself superbly to A-level work in technology and may also prove valuable in connection with the GNVQ manufacturing courses that are coming into schools.
Although the Denbigh TVEI Centre's courses are recognised as a valuable resource, Frank Muraca believes that the benefits of having your own PLC equipment cannot be exaggerated. He points out that E L Instruments has developed a simplified mini-PLC for classroom use which costs Pounds 375 complete with software, while if funding is desperate, school staff could even keep their eyes open for local firms discarding old equipment when they update.
The motivation his PLCs are providing for pupils is in itself a powerful argument for their value - even if recognition of all the skills they can develop seems a long way off. However, he does see signs of hope: "Her Majesty's Inspectors were down recently and I think they were quite impressed by the range of skills some of our kids have developed. I know at least one of them went away pondering the possibility of pupils doing a new style of technology course completely on computers. Now that really is an exciting thought!".