The winning formula

9th March 2001 at 00:00
With ICT expenditure in schools at an all-time high, how efficiently is that money being spent? And why are there such disparities? How can you get the most for your money and ensure your school gets what it really needs? George Cole looks at the broader issues of ICT funding, while other writers examine the key issues in depth

They're under starters ordersI and they're off! The 11-year-olds from Kirkham grammar school that isI and they're gearing up for top slot in Britain's motor racing world.

Jenson Button, at 21 years of age, the UK's youngest Formula One driver may have nothing to fear from these Lancashire boy racers at present, but they regularly propel their Formula One model machines along the racetrack at speeds exceeding 70 mph.

At 11 years of age, they're 10 years younger that the current hottest name in motor racing. But their mode of transport owes more to donkey than horsepower. And while their machines can go from an impressive 0-70 mph in 1.2 seconds, it is nothing compared to normal Formula 1 speeds of more than 180mph that young Button is used to.

Anyway, none of Kirkham's pupils are aiming to be the latest hot name in motor racing. They're just happy to take part in an unusual scheme designed to attract pupils to engineering and grab the chance to build futuristic model F1 cars. They also get to test the aerodynamics of their model against teams from other schools in a series of race meetings culminating in the final next January.

During the first few weeks of the course, pupils spend a lot of time around the computer designing what they consider is the ultimate racing machine with help from the latest technology available. The ProDesktop software is very advanced, but also relatively simply to use. "So pupils can put together a three-dimensional model of some kind within a 40-minute lesson," says Steve Crowther, the school's director of technology.

"The machines run on a carbon dioxide gas canister, but it is nevertheless as thrilling as real high-speed motor racing. It doesn't matter how often the children do it, the excitement still mounts when the initial design on paper is transformed into a three-dimensional model. And seeing young people help each other work out a complicated engineering task takes a lot of beating," says Mr Crowther.

Since its launch at BETT 2001 in January, the Formula One in Schools - CADCAM Design Challenge has already registered 2,000 teachers for the scheme. Now thousands of secondary pupils across the country are busily designing and building gas-engined model racing cars, an eighth of the scale of real F1 cars, and therefore eligible to take part in the competition.

The success of the DFEE's CADCAM initiative launched a year ago to raise the profile of engineering in secondary schools, prompted Denford, Jaguar and BAE Systems to organise and sponsor the Formula One in Schools - CADCA Design Challenge.

Jaguar is no stranger to this kind of sponsorship. Last year it hosted an all expenses day out for the winners of the Grand Prix Online Maths Challenge, which called on primary children to use their maths skills to plan and set up a virtual Grand Prix racing car.

The idea is that pupils must work as a team to design a futuristic F1 car using CAD software ProDesktop (available free from DATA, the Design and Technology Association). Those with the right equipment, such as MiniCAM software and a Denford MicroRouter, can machine their final model at school. But others can link up to a local Denford manufacturing centre to commission machining of their designs. Through video-conferencing or websites with video facilities, they can follow the production stages.

"The competition follows a similar design process for the real F1 cars and gives students a flavour of automotive engineering and manufacture. It also provides a practical, interactive and educational experience that we hope will encourage young people to look at engineering and manufacturing as an exciting career," explains Andrew Denford, chief executive of Denford.

The project relies heavily on teachers' goodwill, who devote hours at after-school and lunchtime clubs where, these days, girls often outnumber boys. "We have about 16 members who regularly attend our after school club and most are girls. They want to be involved as they are interested in doing something totally different," says Ian Slater, who teaches resistant materials and design technology at Kettlethorpe High School, Wakefield.

He adds: "Although we design cars, we are not a boys' own club. It is all about getting the opportunity to work with the software and think carefully about the design."

From an educational point of view Nigel Radtke, at Carelton High School, Wakefield sees the project as a great motivator: "The software has been integrated into our schemes of work and has had a dramatic effect on the quality of design work pupils have been producing in technology and ICT lessons. We now have Year 8 pupils producing the quality of work usually associated with GCSE pupils. They are producing very complex, realistic images on screen and, within 10 minutes, can convert a three-dimensional image into a full-dimensional autographic plan which would have previously taken three hours."

Kirkham's pupils used to have a low opinion of engineering, but now they can't wait to get to their design and technology lessons. "It is not just about being able to emulate the driving exploits of F1 kings," says Steve Crowther. "The software introduces a new dimension to engineering and touches all aspects of design and technology, including resistant materials and graphics."

Registration and entry details from: Denford, Birds Royd, Brighouse, West Yorkshire HD6 lNB. Tel: 01484 712264.

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