You can learn a lot more from a robot teacher

Douglas Blane

Douglas Blane hears why it's lift-off for craft, drama, journalism, music and technology in North Ayrshire

WRITERS sometimes imagine a future in which people's needs are met entirely by machines so everyone lives in complete isolation. It's about as dumb an idea as can be imagined, because the first thing young people do with new technology is use it to communicate.

At the first of North Ayrshire's summer schools, pupils from Ardrossan Academy are building robots. And the fun is in showing them off to their friends.

"I volunteered for summer school because I was missing my teachers," Ryan grins as he wrestles with three miles of unruly green wire. He is only half joking, because he and his friends are clearly getting as much from the interaction with teacher Mark Smith as from the robots they are building.

Lindsey Blackwood confirms that the social side is at least as important as learning new skills like soldering. This is the third summer school she has attended this year. "You get to meet new people. It helps build your confidence."

Some of the robot components are faulty so a few mechanical men still aren't mobile, despite the best efforts of the youngsters assisted by technicians from Irvine's Big Idea attraction. But it is already time to move on and visit another of the North Ayrshire summer school activities - NASSA. Last word on the robot project comes from Mark Smith in an accent that blends Ayrshire and Texas: "Houston, we have a problem . . ."

At the next summer school the technology is musical instruments. The youngsters from Greenwood Academy are playing them. And the fun is in sharing their enthusiasm with their guests. At rehearsals one adult is reciting a monologue while two dozen others, many in wheelchairs, gather around. Some hold brightly coloured masks; others are playing keyboards, guitars, percussion instruments. A number of youngsters are moving about, working with the adults.

At first the monologue seems strained, pretentious: "My surface is a mask . . . beneath dwells the real me, in confusion." But soon the absorption of the performers, as they accompany the words with gestures and music devised by them and their young collaborators, brings conviction to the performance, which gains a dramatic intensity that is very moving.

The mood changes completely for the finale, as the group belts out a set of numbers chosen partly for their lyrics but mainly for just being great songs. The Greenwood company's spirited rendition of "Yellow Submarine" could well be the best anyone has heard since the Beatles broke up.

The guests at this year's music school, organised and run by North Ayrshire's brass instructor Brian Keachie, came as a surprise to some pupils, who had been expecting primary kids, like last year.

But it has been even more enjoyable, they say, working with "Options for Independence", which prepares adults with disabilities for life in the community. "Being able to play a musical instrument has made them happy," Laura Paterson says, "and because we have been teaching them it has made us feel good too."

Their guests are equally enthusiastic. "I've had a great time," young Malcolm Campbell says. "The first day we had a practise on the instruments to see which we liked. Then we sang the songs and the drama group started working with the music. It has all come together really well."

"I've had a brilliant time," Stephen Johnson says. "You wouldn't think that just being here for a week we'd be able to do all this. But we're giving a concert tomorrow." He sounds amazed himself.

Technology assists communications one last time when Barry Smith asks if he can talk about the project. He taps out the words on a speech synthesiser:

"This week has been good for two things. The Greenwood pupils got to understand more about people with disabilities. And we have been able to get out and meet people and do something new. I love music and drama, and I think everybody should get taught them at school."

North Ayrshire has a dozen other summer schools which include Craft Daft, which focuses on unusual skills like jewellery-making and organising a barbecue; Drama Project, a journey of self-discovery through improvisation; and School Daze, in which youngsters write eight pages of news to be published in the local paper.

The successful bid to the New Opportunities Fund that won pound;75,000 for NASSA over three years was put together by Tommy Murphy, principal teacher of business education at St Michael's Academy. Most activities are targeted at children who need a boost to their confidence. "A good way to reach the ones you want is to market the activities through behaviour support units," he says.

"Perhaps the most important component of all our summer schools is the presentation we get the pupils to make at the end of each week. How often do these youngsters get the chance to stand up and be the centre of attention?"

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Douglas Blane

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