Short circuit to the positive
Modern electronics is creative, enjoyable, and personally and financially rewarding to those who pursue it as a career. But teachers who can get this message across to young people are scarce, so misconceptions abound: electronics is difficult to teach and learn; girls can't do it and don't like it; electronics teachers are isolated and unsupported.
None of these need be true according to Electronics in Schools, which recently carried out an evaluation of courses piloted around England aimed at improving electronics teaching.
Perhaps the most significant finding was that design and technology teachers with no electronics background can teach the subject with confidence "following a few days high-quality training."
It is a valuable conclusion: the electronics industry has problems with the quantity and quality of recruits, while 21st-century citizens need some understanding of the technologies that play such a big part in their lives.
But according to the Design and Technology Association (DATA): "Our education system has made little significant effort to educate young people in the basic skills that underpin the emerging technologies."
There is, however, some cause for cautious optimism, says DATA project manager Emma Watson, because the key national players have formed the electronics in schools strategy, which will unite the work of the electronics in schools and electronics and communication technology programmes.
These two initiatives have achieved a great deal, says Emma: a national network of electronics trainers; exemplar materials; websites with resources and case studies as well as "over 500 teachers who have received some professional development in electronics, and many thousands of pupils who have benefited from improved teacher expertise".
There remains a great deal to be done, however: "Currently less than eight per cent of the school cohort of 16-year-olds follow a course of study in GCSE electronics or systems and control," says Emma.
Staffordshire University's Peter Branson, who has been training teachers in electronics for years, is convinced that the key to raising these numbers is improved teacher competence and confidence in teaching electronics: "We need more teachers to enthuse more pupils. There are highly capable teachers out there who can get young people engaged with modern electronics but nowhere near enough of them."
Courses designed to improve teacher competence and confidence will now be delivered through a network of electronics partnership hubs such as Staffordshire University.
"The aim is to provide high quality training and support to teachers across England," says Peter. "The teachers get really fired up and enthused, having experienced for themselves what can be done in the classroom. What is possible nowadays is absolutely amazing, and the range of modern resources available to the electronics teacher is mind-blowing."
These include new input and output devices, smart materials, electronic kits for working with graphics and textiles, and in particular the versatile Peripheral Interface Controllers, which "allow today's pupils to design and make things that are more sophisticated than anyone could have imagined a few years ago."
But funding remains a major uncertainty. The Institution of Electrical Engineers has provided pound;100,000 a year for three years to train teachers in electronics, while similar funds on a yearly basis have been forthcoming from the DfES. But the cost of putting on one course to train the trainers is pound;40,000, so making long-term plans is difficult. "We need the Government to come out and say 'This is a really important area of education that has our backing,'" says Peter.
"There are pockets of good practice, but overall it remains patchy.
Teachers who have been on the courses love how electronics inspires their teaching and young people's learning. That deserves support at the very highest level."
One of only two schools so far to become an electronics partnership hub, Finham Park School, Coventry, is committed to electronics teaching, says head of electronics Paul Gardiner: "We have had up to 100 pupils studying electronics at any one time. Nowadays it's a subject students find very rewarding."
Electronics is the perfect vehicle for teaching design skills, says the former physics teacher, who is looking forward to his first session this week of teaching electronics to primary teachers. "The whole design cycle - creative idea, implement, evaluate, refine - which ends up with a polished product is much faster using electronics than any other technology."
If there is a single development that has turned electronics into such a creative and accessible subject - although the perception has yet to catch up with the reality - it is the Peripheral Interface Controller (PIC), says Paul Gardiner. "PICs have brought the cost of a project way down. You can get a standard kit for under pound;3 per pupil. They are so versatile, and can be used again and again in different ways just by changing the programme. Creativity is at the heart of all this. You can teach input-process-output much more effectively and build a body of knowledge that allows students to synthesise their own solutions."
There remains a big job to be done to dispel the misconceptions about electronics as a school subject, and to convey a sense of the excitement and satisfaction it can create in a classroom says Paul Gardiner. "What students like is that they are using real tools, and that the variety and richness of the applications they create are unmatched in any other curricular area."
Training and resources
As part of the electronics in schools strategy, design and technology teachers can now gain accreditation through a course of study whose major component is a four-day course in electronics and communication technology.
They can opt for starting out in electronics or taking electronics further, both of which are free and supply cover is paid to the school. An eight-day course for those wishing to become accredited trainers is also available.
For more information and application forms: www.ectinschools.org
See also Electronics in Schools: www.electronicsinschools.com
The Technology Enhancement Programme: www.tep.org.uk
The Design and Technology Association: www.data.org.uk
The Institution of Electrical Engineers: www.iee.org
The Science, Engineering, Manufacturing Technology Alliance: www.semta.org.uk
The Nuffield Foundation: www.secondarydandt.org