A lesson for industry

CAD/CAM training will be available for pupils in schools across the UK from this September, in a scheme that aims to spark their interest in design and technology. Patrick Murphy reports on the software giveaway

Children are being turned off engineering. The decline in the number of students entering design and technology courses could soon threaten the competitiveness of UK engineering.

The industry’s response to the problem has been patchy – a multi-million pound TV advertising campaign failed to get off the starting blocks.

However, a £12m software giveaway will help address the problem, igniting children’s interest in technology again. The Schools CAD/CAM Initiative will distribute £12m of professional-standard CAD/CAM software packages and laptop computers to schools nationwide.

The initial two-year pilot phase will involve 50 schools, but the scheme’s administrator, the Design and Technology Association (Data), hopes to extend it to every school.

The scheme is the idea of Professor Kumar Bhattacharyya, director of the Warwick Manufacturing Group. `We have a problem getting youngsters interested in manufacturing and design, which makes me concerned about the design competitiveness of this country,’ he says.

`The need to improve school pupils’ computer aided design skills has long been recognised. Without providing them with the latest high-quality IT tools we will not unleash their full design potential.’

Bhattacharyya first proposed the idea of distributing free professional-standard software to schools during a meeting last year with Barry Cohen, executive vice-president of US CAD-CAM giant Parametric Technology Corporation.

`I thought they would balk at the idea,’ Bhattacharyya admits, `but they were prepared to do it.’

The software PTC agreed to distribute, called Pro/Desktop, can operate in both 2D and 3D environments. The interface is modelled on Microsoft Powerpoint for user-friendliness and is linked to Visual Basic, which can produce a program to show how each stage of a model is constructed.

An important feature of Pro/Desktop is its animation facility. Once a drawing has been created, movement can be modelled to give pupils a better understanding of how their designs will work.

Gabriel Uttley, head of the technical department at Beauchamps School in Essex, says: `This package should give pupils real awareness of how designs fit together visually. I could see kids sitting down in front of this and shouting “look what I can do”.

`We want kids to be literate in all IT. This is a tool – it’s down to the staff to inspire the students.’

Teachers will be trained at the Warwick Manufacturing Group by the organisation’s own staff and PTC. Data will manage the scheme on behalf of the Department for Education and Employment, and holds the right to decide who gets the software licence.

A school can have a licence if at least one person is trained to use the software. The DfEE has allocated £1m to cover the cost of training teachers.

`CAD-CAM will now be taught to pre-GCSE pupils [aged 11-14], as well as those aged 14-16,’ says schools minister Charles Clarke, who officially launched the scheme. Funding for PCs will come from an existing £1bn Government commitment to provide computers for schools.

British Aerospace, Rolls-Royce and other companies will support the scheme by providing engineers to visit the schools.

Uttley believes doors will be opened for children by using professional-standard software, and that the Schools CAD/CAM package will make a significant difference to design and technology teaching. `Industry often thinks that what schools do is Mickey Mouse stuff, and stays away from it. But with this we can take children into engineering firms to see their designs being made,’ he says.