Tearing around racing tracks in machines that can reach 200mph is a risky occupation to say the least, but it's all in a day's work for a group of young hotshots who have found the formula for success in the driving seat - albeit a virtual one. The 10-year-olds, winners from 13 hotly contested regional heats of the Grand Prix Online Maths Challenge, held throughout the UK and Northern Ireland, had to fit their passion for motor racing around homework. But after months of practice and nail biting regional finals, it would have taken a nuclear explosion to break the pupils' concentration in the grand final of the competition, organised by the British Educational and Communications Agency (Becta), held in Birmingham last month.
"Students discovered right from the beginning that maximum concentration was needed for 100 per cent accuracy. To achieve their goal they had to work out more than 200 mathematical calculations", says Alex Douglas from Sanquhar Primary school in Dumfriesshire, the eventual winners of the competition.
His team of Year Six pupils were one of the first three teams in their regional heat, which guaranteed them a place in the grand final. Their regional success followed months of tension and excitement in classroom race meetings designed to choose the team that would represent the school. "These sessions were a flurry of estimation and angle measuring as students worked out how much fuel their car would need to get around a given circuit and how fast it would have to travel to safely manoeuvre that tricky bend," says Mr Douglas.
"The excitement was contagious, but they really enjoyed the challenging calculations because they could see there was a purpose to the maths. Each member brought a different skill to the team and the whole class gleaned some benefit from the software".
The actual racing was done virtually, with the help of computers, and involved primary pupils using mathematical skills to build and race the virtual Grand Prix car in the national competition.Towards the end of last year schools were urged to take up the Maths Grand Prix Online challenge, part of the Government's Maths Year 2000 initiative to prove that maths and ICT can be fun.
Competing schools used a downloadable version of the Cambridge Software House's Grand Prix race simulation program, Maths in Motion, to guide them in their racing endeavours. Teachers from competng schools spoke of the impact the software and competition had on the children. They said that even after the competition the enthusiasm for maths is still there. "It is responsible for sustaining the momentum and concentration and we were surprised by the feedback we got from parents", says Wendy Harknett, headteacher of St Helen's Primary school. "There were stories about them discussing the maths they had learnt and trying to calculate how much fuel the car would need to complete a particular journey."
These Huntingdon pupils were up against groups of equal ability but Ms Harknett says the feeling that they had done this together really shone through. "I believe that one of the things that got our group through to the finals was the amazing teamwork. The children really worked together to solve the mathematical problems they faced. There is a perception that subjects such as maths and ICT are isolating, but this competition proved the opposite. Even after the competition our students continued to generate strategies and make links."
And if you think that car and Grand Prix racing are boys' stuff, think again. More than half the teams competing in the finals boasted at least two female members each. They weren't squeamish about getting their hands dirty. In fact they took great pleasure using line and frequency graphs to work out how much fuel they would need to get around a given circuit. Even coming up against adverse weather conditions didn't deter them from coming up with pit stop strategies that would save time without compromising maximum safe speeds.
Car gearboxes, suspension and aerodynamics are no longer a mystery to members of this Grand Prix club. There might not have been any million pound prizes to be won, but the eventual Challenge Champions got an all-expenses paid day out at a Jaguar Racing event and computer equipment and software for their school. Finalists did not go home empty-handed either - prizes in the various heats included colour printers, Web cameras, scanners and software.
"It was a way of dealing with an awful lot of complicated maths in a fun way. It was challenging for the children but in a way that appealed to them and enabled us to work on such a degree of maths that would have taken several weeks to cover in a normal classroom setting," says Mr Bryne from Swansea's Danygraig Primary school.