A modular technology training programme from the United States is taking schools by storm. Harvey McGavin reports.
There's a rocket on the roof of Hugh Christie Technology College in Tonbridge, Kent. Ask Matthew Lane, the school's head of technology, about it and he just shrugs his shoulders and laughs.
Over-enthusiastic pupils put it there during a particularly forceful demonstration of how something can be launched without fuel, he explains. Until the caretaker fetches it down, the errant missile is a minor inconvenience and a running joke in the school's technology lab.
Pupils take off their shoes and coats when they come into the recently refitted classrooms. It keeps the carpet looking smart, but there's a kind of subtle psychology behind the dress code, too. "It sets a tone for the room," explains Matthew Lane. "They are coming into a clean environment - there's none of the muck and grime people sometimes associate with technology."
The coat and bag ban is also a way of making sure parts of the school's technology kit don't go walkies. The interactive element of the alternative energy module might be 50 feet up on top of the school hall but the staff are keen to keep all the other bits and pieces demonstrating everything from mechanisms to weather monitoring safely in the lab.
The school installed a Scantek modular technology training programme just over a year ago. Scantek is a computer-based system from the United States that guides the student through basics, sets them challenges and tests their understanding before and after they have completed the module. There's also hardware to go with the software; each module includes a practical demonstration of the principles behind it.
It's expensive - Hugh Christie spent pound;80,000 on their selection of 17 modules- but it is impressive.
"You learn stuff you wouldn't normally learn in everyday technology lessons," says Martine, a Year 8 student, as she tests the aerodynamic properties of different shapes by placing blocks of wood in a wind tunnel.
Ben, who is grappling with a remote-controlled robot, agrees. "In some classes you get taught things and you just forget them. But with this you can learn things by doing them."
As he tries to pick up a small cylinder, the future of the human race depends on his every move - at least that's what the computer tells him. "They try to make it fun by saying these are nuclear bombs and if you drop them then it will be the end of the world."
A survey of Scantek's use in seven English schools was similarly positive, bearing out Hugh Christie's experience and noting improved motivation among pupils. The report's author Jacquie Watson says: "Many more than expected want to use the rooms in their own time. Watching lessons where pupils use Scantek bears this out - pupils are absorbed in the tasks from the beginning to the end."
The learn-at-your-own-pace system certainly seems to keeps pupils busy, leaving more time for one-to-one attention from the teacher. There's less of a stigma in getting a question wrong because nobody except your partner, your teacher and the computer need ever know.
The class teacher has a computer that monitors the test scores of each pupil, and each workstation flashes red on the screen if they repeatedly get a question wrong or need help.
Matthew Lane is a convert to the system, elements of which he hopes will be used in the future by other subjects such as geography, maths or science. "It's an ideal way of teaching the concepts and the understanding in a realistic setting. And it's a way of giving them the subject knowledge that in the past we would have done in a very dry way."
Hugh Christie is a grant-maintained school in an area thick with grammars. Some pupils have reading ages of six or seven, and can struggle to read the on-screen text - one of the few problems the school has encountered with the system can be solved by using the computers' loudspeaker function.
Matthew Lane began working at the school soon after the Scantek system had been installed. "When I came here the department was failing - my job was to turn it around," he says. So far, so good: the A-C pass rate in the subject was below 20 per cent, last year it was around 30 per cent, and this year he hopes it will approach 40.
Significant progress, a lot of which he puts down to the Scantek system. But it doesn't end there. "Our target will be 50 per cent," he says, without a hint of doubt in his voice.
Scantek: 01603 748001