Bernard Adams finds out how A-level students are tapping universities' expertise via the information superhighway
A large workshop at Brunel University in leafiest Surrey, a collection of parents, 18 sixth-formers from two comprehensives, two heads of technology from ditto and a small posse of academics. It's after lunch on a June Sunday - the final moments of a design and technology challenge that started nine months earlier.
Three teams of six - two from Collingwood School, Camberley, one from Vyners School, Uxbridge - have been spending the weekend trying to devise a remote-control method of collecting 10 empty drink cans off a two-level platform and dropping them into a receptacle at one end. Each team had three runs. In the end the Vyners team and one of the Collingwood teams managed a dead heat - dropping nine cans each in the same time of one minute 26 seconds. But on a final run Collingwood slashed 11 seconds off that time to win with a time of one minute 15 seconds.
Les Porter, Brunel's design and technology course director, is in charge. "I'd never have believed a dead heat was possible," he says ruefully. "It's been hard work but very worthwhile. I was surprised that all the teams chose to attack the problem mechanically rather than pneumatically. Perhaps it revealed which technologies they were - and weren't - happy with."
This design and technology challenge at Brunel is part of a year-long programme designed to enable A-level students to tap into expertise at the university using an IT network called MARSNET (Management and Access to Resources for Schools Networks).
MARSNET was developed in response to the Government's consultation paper Broadband Communication, Superhighways for Education. It has been in development for almost two years and involves a partnership between industry and education. In the case of the technology challenge, Brunel provides the information, the Roseberry Networks group provides MARSNET and the teachers use this intranet (a private information network) to access the information they want.
MARSNET tries to support the needs of clearly identified groups of teachers and students - it can, for example, provide a range of information from examining boards, as well as links between schools. Technology is an area where schools often need outside help. Mr Porter, from his Brunel perspective, says the difficulty is that headteachers often under-value technology. He says: "Although the syllabus is sound teachers are often just too stretched to address it properly. Some of the incoming students just don't know the basic nuts and bolts."
So he and his colleagues identified two schools with strong technology departments, and with the help of MARSNET, set out a year-long programme. Collingwood and Vyners boys (no girls so far) came to lectures at Brunel on materials, pneumatics and the design process as well as on green and environmental issues - areas where the teachers did not have the resources to deliver knowledge satisfactorily at school.
Preparations for the challenge weekend started months beforehand when Mr Porter sent a box of miscellaneous components to the school. This contained pieces of aluminium and plastic, various "found" materials and lots of fixings - 40 items in all.
The students did their best to work out beforehand how to deal with the tin-can challenge. "It was a unique learning experience," says Richard Broadbent, head of a technology department of 13 at Collingwood. "Students don't usually find themselves in these sort of team situations. They rarely have to solve problems other than as individuals, so they found it fairly arduous - turning their separate visions into something that would make sense. One of my students went against my advice - and of course it worked."
Adrian Neilson, who heads a technology department of only three teachers at Vyners has found participation in the project increased commitment at A-level. "This weekend they have really been treated like pre-university students, " he says. "Going away like this gives a tremendous boost to staff-student relationships. They've had a good time and competed well, but it's not an Olympics - it's the participation that counts."
Stephen Gambie, one of the Collingwood pupils, says: "The materials were restricting. We didn't dare cut some of them up in case we made a mistake. " But he has enjoyed this foray into university life and would like to come to Brunel to study production design.
The man from MARSNET, Jim Farr, is pleased with the way things have gone on the day, and that it is now possible for teachers to get a great deal of information on a variety of subjects through MARSNET. "The project should be teacher-driven and ultimately it will put schools in touch with each other as well as universities," he says. "As well as technology, we're providing support for teacher education, vocational education and school management. This particular technology project will happen again next year with an increased number of schools. And we are going to expand into the field of graphics. "
As he prepares for the de-briefing on the weekend Mr Porter has some interesting reflections. "Persuading just one student to come to us would make it all worthwhile," he says. "But that wasn't the prime aim. I want to improve the level of technology nationally." He's looking forward to a big competition next year.
And the winners? "The Collingwood team was two hours behind everyone else, had hardly any strategy and did it by trial and error. It was bodgers' day out. Improvisation won out over planning. My undergraduates would have been shocked." he says almost gleefully.
For more details on MARSNET, contact the MARSNET project office, The Portway Centre, Old Sarum Park, Salisbury SP4 6EB. Tel: 01722 423 232