The idea of a rain warning device for a washing line came to 13-year-olds Gemma Hancock and Kobika Sritharan in a lesson when they dipped two wires into water to sound a buzzer.
Steve Woolley, their teacher at Brancroft school in Woodford Green, Essex, asked the class to think about possible applications. The two girls were so intrigued that they joined the school's engineering club, run four times a week to enable children to indulge their engineering skills "purely for fun". They worked at their project over many months and last year won the 11-14 year group of Young Engineers for Britain.
The device is pegged to the washing line and flashes a red light and sounds a buzzer when it rains. When the clothes are dry a green light flashes. The girls are now improving the device in response to a letter from a blind woman who finds it difficult to check the weather. She asked if it could have a transmitter so she can hear it indoors.
The Young Engineers for Britain competition, organised by the Engineering Council, is the biggest event of its kind in Europe. Last year more than 50 budding engineers aged between 11 and 19 competed for prizes following a round of regional finals involving 1,300 hopefuls. Schools are now being asked to sign up for this year's competition (see box).
The overall winner last year was HAMLET, a computer-controlled theatre lighting system designed by David Kelnar, Ramsay Waller, Jonathan Scott and John Wyllie (all aged 16) from Merchiston Castle, an independent boarding school in Edinburgh. In December it was put through its paces at an end-of-term show and has attracted interest from a Scottish company.
"The competition has increased the school's links with industry and raised the level of enthusiasm in the school for technology subjects," says teacher Adrian Meadows.
Gemma Hancock and Kobika Sritharan were able to confirm this. Neither of the girls had gravitated to engineering easily. "I used to think that it was a really boring topic," says Gemma, "but you can make things; you can do things for people and you have to think of a whole lot of other things apart from electronics."
Other skills are vividly demonstrated in their beautifully illustrated report showing how they made their device.
The competition gave pupils "an opportunity to see lots of ideas from other schools and meet people from industry," says Mr Woolley. "We're trying to generate interest in science and technology and it's had a positive effect on recruitment for technology subjects." It was changing the status of work still looked upon as a greasy overall type of occupation.
many of the ideas could certainly be described as high profile. Take the device which won the 17 to 19 year group and the prize for the Best Project for the Built Environment. In partnership with John Laing Construction, Alistair Clarke, Sam James and Ruth Jenkins (all aged 17), of Bishop of Llandaff High School, a Cardiff comprehensive, devised a mechanism to open and close the retractable roof of the city's Millennium Stadium.
Since they have formed links with engineering companies and entered competitions, teacher Peter Triggs has seen a growth in the number of pupils interested in engineering: "Last year we had five; this year it's 13."
Smaller scale but attracting a lot of interest were two winners in the 11-14 individual category. From Bloxham School, an Oxfordshire independent, Jun Baba, 12, invented an environmentally-friendly cardboard armchair which converts into a desk and chair; and Benjamin Young, also 12, designed a car turntable, which would enable people to exit forwards from their driveways instead of reversing on to the road. Jun has been asked to apply to register his armchair as a Millennium product, which would make it one of 2,000 UK products epitomising good design.
Both have received some interest from industry. But the cost of patenting designs, which companies usually demand to be sure that no one else has grabbed the idea, is proving a hurdle. Young Engineers for Britain are now offering advice on how to protect ideas with patents.
Schools should take heed: young inventors, it appears, are coming up with commercially sound ideas which could all too easily be imitated.
The Young Engineers for Britain Competition is open to 11 to 25-year-olds attending school, college or working in industry. Projects should identify a need and provide a solution. People may enter individually or as a group of up to four. Only one entry is allowed per student but there is no limit to the numbers of entries from a school, college, organisation or Young Engineers club.
All projects must have been started between March l997 and March l999 and must not have entered the competition before. The closing date for entries is March 31. The regional finals will be held in May and July. The final will take place in London in September.
Criteria projects will be marked in five categories: objectives; innovation; engineering skill; presentation; and marketing. An understanding of commercial viability is expected; presentations should be rehearsed; absentee entrants cannot be judged and teacherssupervisors should remain in the background during judging.
Entry forms: Young Engineers for Britain, The Engineering Council, 10 Maltravers Street, London WC2R 3ER. Tel: 0171 240 7891.