One South Yorkshire school has shot to the top in the UK heats of the Formula 1 in Schools challenge, and now the team has its sights set on world glory. David Bocking reports
To some people, engineering has a spanners, greasy rags and overalls image problem, says Carol Gormley, assistant head of Bradfield School. "The idea of engineering doesn't always set people alight," she adds candidly.
Bradfield's 900 pupils come from a semi-rural area between the old industrial heartland of Sheffield and the former foundry town of Stocksbridge, where engineering is often equated with steel manufacture or tool-making. However, many of the school's 11 to 16-year-olds see modern engineering very differently. "It's interesting because it stimulates your mind," says Brad McAnearney, aged 13. "It makes your brain work."
"And I've heard engineering is well paid," adds 14-year-old Michael Carr, with a glint in his eye.
Michael and Brad know where an interest in modern engineering can lead - school trips to Birmingham and London over recent months, and next year their Bradfield engineering team will be off to the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne. All being well they will meet members of Formula 1 teams from Renault, Honda and Ferrari this summer at the United States Grand Prix in Indianapolis.
The Bradfield Panthers are winners of this year's F1 in Schools Technology Challenge, following a hard fought competition at Birmingham's National Exhibition centre in January. The Bradfield Year 9 team saw off 30 other UK finalists - including several 18-year-old squads - to claim the overall winner's trophy, handed over by former McLaren F1 driver Mark Blundell.
"The best moment was the second they shouted out our name, and everything went into slow motion," says Brad McAnearney. "It felt brilliant."
Bradfield's head of technology, Paul Johansson, was "so excited he fell off the podium," recalls another Bradfield Panther, Amy Ward, aged 13.
You couldn't blame him - Amy's teacher had waited a long time for his F1 success. The F1 in Schools Challenge was piloted in 1999, when Paul was working at Featherstone High School. Twelve local Wakefield teams (including Featherstone High) took part in the first competition following a conversation between Paul and Andrew Denford, the owner of the West Yorkshire educational CADCAM (computer-aided designcomputer-aided manufacture) company, Denford. "Andrew showed me a model car from America, fired by gas canisters, and asked: 'What do you think of this for a project?'," says Paul. "I thought it looked really good."
Six years later, the F1 in Schools Technology Challenge attracted entries from 500 British schools and has spread around the world. In 2007, the Bradfield Panthers will pit their wits, and a new car design, against teams from 20 other countries, ranging from Australia and South Africa to the US and the United Arab Emirates, in a competition to be held in Melbourne alongside the Australian Grand Prix.
The UK challenge consists of a brief for 11 to 18-year-old students to design a small balsa-wood F1 car using a CAD package, which is then manufactured on a computer numerical control (CNC) machine. Students test their cars and produce design portfolios, specification sheets and 3D renderings of their final designs before attending a regional final at test centres around the country.
A design team must include three to six students, all of whom take on different jobs, such as design and manufacturing engineer, resources and marketing manager or graphic designer.
"We learned about teamwork and organisational skills," says Bradfield Panthers team manager Alex Horrocks, aged 14.
The challenge aims to offer students a true-to-life experience of modern engineering, says Paul. "The key skills are working to deadlines, working to specifications and to fine tolerances, and applying science and technology into a design. The idea behind this kind of project is to open the students' minds and make them able to solve problems."
Students also have to make a presentation about their design to judges, which adds to the realism of the experience - as does the team-building which, in Bradfield's case, took place over the last three years, following Paul's arrival at the school.
Alex Horrocks is one of the only members left from the original team of Year 7 students, and for this year's attempt he drafted in fellow pupils on the basis of the skills they had to offer: Amy Ward for graphics, Brad Smith (13) for science, Tom Housley (14) for PowerPoint expertise and Brad McAnearney for engineering. Michael Carr took his crucial place as the car's start button-presser because of his phenomenal reaction times - 0.003 seconds and better, say his admiring colleagues. It comes from karate, not PlayStation, he explains.
The team won their key stage 3 age group class in the regional finals in November, but on that occasion were beaten to the overall winner's prize by another local school. "So I told them, 'You're going to the final, but you'll lose again because you know there'll be a team there who can beat you, unless you develop an even better car and a better presentation and design portfolio'," says Paul. "It caused a lot of anxiety, but they accepted it was a challenge that needed to be met. It was like getting to the World Cup finals: so close, but it could be so far as well."
In Birmingham, the team members were still finishing off their brief on the hotel floor at 9pm on the night before the final, remembers Amy Ward. In fact, the judges later said that the Bradfield Panthers clinched their title on the strength of their presentation and design portfolio, after recording only the fourth fastest time of the day.
The Bradfield title-winning bid cost about pound;700, says Paul, but he decided to "push the boat out" on hotel accommodation, team T-shirts and so on. A school could take part on much less - the construction of each car costs about pound;15 and, along with a design portfolio and presentation, that's all that's needed to compete, he says.
Bradfield has its own CADCAM machinery (the school is bidding for engineering specialist status this year), but competing schools can link up with colleges, universities or companies with appropriate equipment via the F1 in Schools website.
Suitable design software packages, such as ProDesktop and Solid Edge are also available for free (to suitably trained teachers, in the case of ProDesktop) from F1 in Schools or from the Design and Technology Association's CAD in School's website. The challenge has grown in stature every year, says Paul, with initial sponsors Jaguar, BAE Systems and Denford now joined by more than 20 national and international engineering companies and agencies.
"Engineering is sexy," says F1 in Schools founder and chairman Andrew Denford. "It's what it's all about. Everything revolves around engineering." And that's a message that's finally getting through to students; even in the former oily rags steel country of South Yorkshire.
"Some people think of engineering as a dirty, boring job, but they're wrong," says Tom Housley.
"It's different to everything else, you've got to use your hands and your mind, and no-one can tell you what's right or wrong, because you're making something from your own imagination," says Brad McAnearney.
Now, the Panthers have to design a new car to new specifications to beat their rivals from around the world. "I'm excited about it," says Brad McAnearney. "But of course, we're going to win."