Judy Mackie on the success of a competition which challenged Scottish youngsters to find design solutions for the new millennium
School competitions promise wonderful prizes and high-profile media coverage - but they can cause mayhem for teachers and advisers with their short deadlines, little understanding of the educational system and additional pressure at crucial times in the school year. Not so Designing the Future - a Grampian-wide challenge, which has received international recognition as a "global best" at an education business partnership conference in Canada.
The brainchild of an alliance between Grampian Education Business Partnership, the Robert Gordon University and the Aberdeen Society of Architects, the competition was launched in August 1997 to raise awareness of the importance of design, architecture and the built environment among young people up to Secondary 6.
Pupils were challenged to find design solutions for the new millennium for one of the following briefs: transport (changing the way it works, moves or is stored); the school (redesigning or adding to existing facilities), and places and spaces (designing something - not necessarily a building - which must have a useful purpose). They could work in teams or individually.
The project has been enormously successful, attracting entries from almost 2,000 pupils representing 40 schools, and producing five winning pupils or teams. A glittering ceremony was held last month for the winners, who received their prizes (pound;900 for their school and pound;100 for themselves) from Benedatta Tagliabue, the architect whose Miralles partnership is designing the Scottish Parliament buildings at Holyrood. The winning models have also been exhibited in Aberdeen's Bon Accord Shopping Centre, Glasgow's SECC and at the Royal Institute of Architects and Surveyors (RIAS) headquarters in Edinburgh.
From the outset, the focus was less on achieving a high-profile end result for the lucky few, and more on ensuring that the competition would benefit all the participating schools. This approach was welcomed by the schools and education authorities. The project linked directly to the curriculum, particularly art and design, environmental studies and literacy and numeracy. Aberdeen's adviser for staff development, Hugh Roche, says: "It provided the type of core learning and teaching which pupils at all stages need and to which they can respond, for example, in problem-solving and working with others.
"With ample time to become really involved, they could learn a great deal and make progress in their coursework. From the schools' point of view, the project extended the range and quality of the earning experience and supported increasing demands for improved education-industry links."
A primary and a secondary teacher were seconded to develop information and resource packs, with guidelines for teachers and explanatory sheets for pupils on the design process, an architect's perspective, working in a project team, and self-evaluation. More than 40 local architects provided support to participating classes, teams and individuals, ranging from class talks and the provision of research materials and general information, to on-going one-to-one advice sessions.
Maurice Jones, of the OR Humphries Partnership, Aberdeen, was a regular visitor to Alehousewells School, in Kemnay, where he worked with budding designers Sarah and Matthew Chadbourn on places and spaces entries in the Primary 4-7 category. He also worked closely with their teachers, Muriel Gration and Pauline Mark, so he was able to shape his advice to suit particular topics they were studying in class.
"I've always been interested in working with schools, and I felt this was a very good scheme to get involved in," he says. "I visited once a fortnight for about five months, and gave the children mainly technical advice - they had all the ideas."
Matthew, now 11, was keen to design an activity centre which would bring together the rapidly spreading community of Kemnay. His research study identified a need for a swimming pool, squash courts, a gym and a cinema, and pinpointed the village green as a suitable site.
The building's highly original turtle shape, featuring grassy domes which cover the partially sunk pool and other leisure facilities, would not only reflect the water activities going on inside, but also allow for a large green area to remain and blend in with the surroundings. Further environmentally friendly features include effective insulation and use of solar energy. Parking would be kept away from the green, but provide access to the centre via footpaths.
Matthew's design was one of the five winners, but all the young people who got involved benefited, says Mr Jones. "Designing the Future has given them a great deal to think about and has raised their - and the public's - awareness of the wider aspects of design within their local environment."
The two oldest winners, brother and sister Laurence and Rachel Batley, of Cults Academy, Aberdeen, carried off the S3-4 and S5-6 prizes respectively. The also chose the places and spaces brief, which tied in nicely with their coursework in art and design.
Rachel, now 17, came up with an innovative solution to the decades-old problem of what to do with Aberdeen's Rubislaw Quarry, Europe's largest man-made hole. Her space-age leisure complex includes a restaurant, underwater conference centre and service tower - all within a controlled tropical environment. She tried to find a solution that was "both elegant and futuristic and would offer something to visitors of all ages. The major design problem was how to make use of the quarry's volume."
Fifteen-year-old Laurence's design, The Poop Deck, centres on a sunken galleon restaurant, intended as part of a seaside visitors' centre. Its windows are below sea level; the bar is like a ship's wheel; the seating is in the shape of an anchor, and a rowing boat provides transport to the restaurant.
Neither of the Batleys intends to pursue a career as an architect or designer, but according to Rachel's art and design teacher, Jim McElroy, that does not matter. "What's important is that they have developed their problem-solving, planning, technical and aesthetic skills, which will stand them in good stead whatever career they pursue."
Designing the Future was sponsored by Scottish Telecom, Grampian Enterprise Property Directorate, Stuart Milne Group and Lofhus Signs and Engraving
1-3 Design brief: The School
Winners: Class 3M, Robert Gordon's College Junior School, Aberdeen
Teacher: Caroline Chinn
Architect: Marion Donald, John and Marion Donald Architects
Design: New play area and shelter for the junior schoolA collective desire to bring a little piece of the countryside to their city centre school, inspired the pupils of 3M to create their highly-imaginative play area design. With Marion Donald, they looked at different types of play area architecture and brainstormed for ideas. The positioning of trees and ponds, which would attract bird, animal and insect life, was carefully thought out, taking account of sun and wind directions. Quiet areas and a pleasant shelter were also important features. A 3D model, made from Lego and polystyrene, sparked further ideas, such as fun lights and playing marble-inspired litter bins.
Category: Secondary 1-2
Design brief: Places and Spaces
School: Oldmachar Academy, Aberdeen
Winners: Jayde Campbell, Rona Wilson and Kirsty Knight
Teacher: David Chinnl Architect: Trevor Smith, property and technical services department, Aberdeen City Council
Design: Thomas Blake Glover FootbridgeTrevor Smith's challenge to two S2 classes to design a footbridge linking the newly-restored Thomas Blake Glover House to a proposed visitor car park at the other side of the River Don, inspired a range of creative tributes to the 19th-century north-east engineering legend, whose name is celebrated throughout Japan. The pupils studied maps and photographs of the site and house, and researched Glover's own structural designs, Japanese influences and other bridges around the world. The most promising ideas were selected for the final drawings, and Jayde, Rona and Kirsty created their impressive 3D model bridge, complete with tree-inspired struts spelling out the words Japan and Scotland, and unique plastic tubular walkway.