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The ultimate design tool

It's cheaper than you think to bring IT into the tech block, writes Patrick Kelly

Talk technology and you are talking computers. Robotics, computer-controlled manufacturing processes, computer-aided design - there's scarcely a successful industry in the country where the production line hasn't been transformed by the coming of the chip. Naturally, design and technology departments in Britain's schools will be reflecting this second industrial revolution by leading the development of information technology in education, won't they? Not quite.

According to Geoff Howard, president of the National Association of Advisers and Inspectors in Design and Technology (NAAIDT), IT in schools has too often been dominated by professional and business applications. Even in those schools which have pioneered IT as a separate field of study, the computer in the classroom is seen as the key to mastering the intricacies of spreadsheets, word processing and databases, and little else.

"The software for these applications is available; it's relatively cheap and it's accessible to children," he says. "But many teachers and IT co-ordinators do not see the wider application of their IT resources. For example, Acorn has a perfectly good Draw program built into its computers. Too few people have bothered to use it."

But things are changing. All over the country, design and technology teachers are demonstrating that IT can provide pupils with experience of modelling, manufacturing and product development, just as in the real world. What's more, they are doing so without pauperising their departments.

Existing word processors, spreadsheets, databases, DTP and drawing packages can all be used to give children the experience of designing and making high-quality products which can be tested in use. All they require is one computer and one printer. How?

It is all laid out in the DITT Pack, a resource produced by the NAAIDT, the National Council for Educational Technology and the Design and Technology Teachers Association. The pack uses a three-stage approach to lead pupils from simple two-dimensional drawing programs (for example, to produce a personalised school timetable) to computer-controlled routers and machine tools.

For example, baking parchment cut to A4 size can be fed into a printer to create colourful Christmas decoration, gift-wrap paper can be used to create attractive packaging nets, spreadsheets and databases can recreate consumer surveys and marketing analyses, while drawing programs can be harnessed to produce everything from labels to animated cartoons.

Other useful materials for teachers explain the principles behind the use of IT in design and technology and cite case histories of design and technology departments which have taken up the challenge of IT.

At Greenhead Grammar School in Keighley, IT head Brian Smith has worked with pupils on the production of everything from calculators to cakes, from film sets for a futuristic TV programme to textiles. "We're committed to using IT as a tool in the designing, making and controlling of processes and products because we are preparing pupils for a future that will be dominated by IT both at home and at work," he says.

Nor is it only something of benefit to older, more able children. Pupils at St Lawrence special school in Horncastle, Lincolnshire, have produced jewellery, copper pots, engravings and computer-controlled cranes using a range of IT applications. Head of technology Jon Noad says: "IT enables our pupils to achieve a far higher quality product than they otherwise might. It can allow the least able of pupils to see themselves, if only briefly, as being able to take an active part as an equal in a world that often leaves them behind. "

Teachers will find that CD-Roms tailored to design and technology needs are still rare. But, according to Jane Steenstra, an adviser to the Design and Technology Teachers Association, use can be made of the more common resource materials. "Microsoft's Encarta multimedia encyclopedia, for example, contains valuable sections on structures such as bridges and roofs. Even a history CD-Rom such as The Vikings (Anglia Multimedia) has lots of material on the building of ships, the making of clothes and textiles, which can be part of a DT lesson," she says.

In Scotland, the Scottish Centre for Educational technology has produced a number of image banks on CD-Rom specially for design and technology teachers. Hundreds of images of products and packaging, design and development techniques can be easily accessed.

Some packages can be manipulated to allow pupils to modify the "standard" designs. Teachers are keen on software that allows their pupils to be creative, says SCET technology adviser Martin Jack. But school purchasing policy on IT often ignores the need to buy hardware and software that caters for a range of subjects, he says.

The DITT Pack team plan to create a DT on-line service with a group of schools and colleges sharing information and experiences with each other and industrial partners via e-mail. The system gives members access to data, software and expensive components. The on-line service hopes to find sponsorship to build a series of Internet pages to link all DT departments, agencies, suppliers and industry.

So is design and technology teaching finally getting to grips with IT? According to Geoff Howard, the response to the new materials has been good. "Quite a few design and technology teachers have been very keen to explore the ideas we have been putting forward. In many schools, however, empires have already been built: getting people to shift their focus to design and technology is going to be difficult."

* The National Council for Education Technology, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ.Tel: 01203 416994. The NCET has a useful Web site with details of D T materials at * National Association of Advisers andInspectors in Design and Technologyco Geoff Howard, North Yorkshire County Council, Area Education Office, Ainsty Road, Harrogate HG1 4XU. Tel: 01423 700120. E mail * The Design and Technology Association, 16 Wellesbourne House, Walton Road. Wellesbourne. Warwickshire CV35 9JB Tel: 01789 470007 Scottish Council for Education Technology 74 Victoria Park Road, Glasgow G12 9JN.Tel: 0141 337 5001.

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