A futuristic but friendly-looking model house is on display in the foyer of South Lanarkshire College, complete with features that light up in response to an array of buttons. Intriguing labels such as "rainwater harvesting", "ground-source probes" and "low energy windows" make it a valuable tool for introducing students to sustainable homes and the methods and materials used to build them.
But how much more educational might it be if this was a real house, rather than a model? That vision will soon become reality, as digging has begun at the East Kilbride campus to lay the foundations for a full-size, sustainable four-bedroomed house that will be up by September.
There is nothing like it on any college campus in Scotland, says John Carr, head of the faculty of construction. "In 10 years' time, all new buildings will be built to this standard. So our construction students - 2,000 of them - need to know about it now.
"This resource will give them the opportunity not just to look at sketches, but to go over and see the real thing, to feel it, to put their hands on it. They'll construct walls and roofs to the same principles in the workshops. How much more effective will all that be as a learning experience?"
That learner-centred focus (see panel) is the reason learning and teaching at the college was judged very good in every area reviewed by HM Inspectors in 2007, says Mr Carr. "We were the first college in Scotland to get that."
While the sustainability house is part of that drive to improve the learning, it is also a project close to the heart of plumbing and gas lecturer James Jamieson. "I got the idea when I first looked at the Rehau drawing a couple of years ago," he says. "We've been talking to companies ever since, trying to get it built.
"We now have a number of industrial partners on board, including polymer manufacturers Rehau, sustainable heating suppliers NIBE, and Marley who make special tiles that can extract nitrous oxide from the air. The manufacturers provide all the materials and equipment. Dawn Homes build the house, the college provides the site."
As a collaborative, everybody-wins type of project, the sustainable house will be used at times by the manufacturers as a showcase for customers and a training resource for staff. It will be used daily by the college for students. "Getting the manufacturers on board keeps us at the forefront of change," says Mr Jamieson.
"When they bring out new equipment or materials, they'll fit them in the house and our students will experience them right away."
Domestic houses contribute more than a quarter of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change. So this new house is being built to a standard of sustainability to which all new houses are expected to conform by 2016. This Code for Sustainable Homes assesses a building in nine categories - energy and carbon dioxide, water, materials, run-off, waste, pollution, health and well-being, management and ecology - and uses a rating system to show overall sustainability. The new house will be built to the very exacting Code level 5.
"We achieve that by a range of methods," says Mr Jamieson. "Heating is from ground-source probes and solar panels. Walls and roof are heavily insulated. There are triple-glazed, krypton gas windows. There's a ground- air heat exchanger. Rainwater is harvested. Simple but effective design features include large south-facing and much smaller north-facing windows.
"There is a home-office to cut down on commuting, space for bicycles and a teaching area."
The project has a significance that goes beyond education, says Mr Carr. "The present estimate is that a buyer will pay around Pounds 5,000 more than for a traditional house. But over time, the energy savings will more than make up for that. This is not just a sustainable house, it is an affordable one."
Construction students will leave South Lanarkshire College better equipped with the knowledge, techniques and design principles needed in the near future, says Mr Jamieson. "But they will also go out and educate the industry and the wider community about sustainable homes."
WHAT COUNTS IS `HOW LEARNERS LEARN'
The most important feature of any college is not how teachers teach, says South Lanarkshire's head of construction, John Carr. "It's how learners learn. We spend a huge amount of time reviewing this with our new lecturers."
The starting point and continuing focus of all this professional development is the work of Geoff Petty, educational consultant and author of Teaching Today, the best-selling teacher training text.
"Together with curriculum manager James Martin, I attended a number of training sessions," says Mr Carr. "It was very practical stuff, such as `Top ten teaching tips that improve retention and learning in FE students'. The basic idea is to find out what makes learners tick, which could be different for each of them. They are all individual."
They then developed a great deal of professional development and teaching materials, which were used initially in the construction faculty, says Mr Martin. "For years college lecturers have been talking at the learner and feeling this is how it should be done.
"Petty shows us how to move towards working as a team, using practical strategies and techniques that produce high levels of learner engagement. We've now rolled this out across the college. New lecturers are very receptive and the more experienced lecturers are gradually coming on board."