Putting science first

Children are losing interest in science and technology. A downward trend in applications for engineering courses indicates as much. If this continues, the UK’s future as a manufacturing nation could be under threat. But in Birmingham, a ground-breaking education programme could help change that. The University of the First Age (UFA), a vacation learning programme […]

Children are losing interest in science and technology. A downward trend in applications for engineering courses indicates as much. If this continues, the UK’s future as a manufacturing nation could be under threat.

But in Birmingham, a ground-breaking education programme could help change that. The University of the First Age (UFA), a vacation learning programme aimed at 11 14-year-olds backed by Birmingham City Council and local companies, aims to boost schoolchildren’s exposure to education.

It uses an approach called ‘multi- sensory teaching’, which aims to stimulate the right side of the brain, responsible for creativity, music, rhythm, pattern and visual senses, as well as the left side, responsible for logic, order, analysis, and detail. It also makes extensive use of practical project work.

Nigel Smith, assistant principal of the UFA, explains: ‘Traditional teaching of gears, for example, would explain their workings using a technical diagram and equations. But this method might not appeal to all. By introducing visuals and models, we can stand the students up and say: You’ve got 15 teeth, and you’ve got 45. How may times will you have to turn around to rotate the person with the 45-toothed cog? This way it’s much more fun.’

Smith says children only spend 15% of their time in education. The UFA, now entering its fourth year, intends to boost this by using summer schools and distance learning modules.

The summer school will run from 19 30 July. About 2,000 students are expected to take part, of which 240 places will be in science and technology. Funding of £600,000 comes from the city council, charitable trusts and government regeneration programmes.

Smith, a former school science teacher, believes multi-sensory teaching helps engage children who might not otherwise be interested in science. One child’s comment, fed back to UFA tutors, was: ‘I wanted to do science and technology because I wasn’t that good at it. I was in the bottom group at school, but when my UFA tutor spoke to me and said I was going to go in the top group, I couldn’t stop smiling.’

It is too early for a rigorous analysis of the programme to have been done, but The University of Strathclyde’s education faculty is studying the UFA’s results and local research is being done.

For 11 13-year-olds, a typical UFA science project is to design and manufacture a piece of glassware etched with a corporate logo. It involves forming a team, along the lines of a company structure, and creating a corporate image. The students then study the chemistry and manufacture of glass and how to design and apply a finish. They gain experience of CAD, CNC and computer integrated manufacturing.

This project is run with the help of the Birmingham Centre for Manufacturing (BCM), a local company providing support services such as CNC and CAD to firms in the city.

‘After taking part in this challenge at the BCM the students were taken to Land Rover at Solihull to look at how a real company uses these systems,’ says Smith.

One of the other challenges the students are given is based on an educational project designed by the US Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). This involves building a toy electric vehicle which can perform set tasks, including: travelling a linear distance of 3m from a standing start in 3 seconds; climbing a 15 slope from a standing start under its own power over a distance of 1m in 2 seconds or less; and the flying metre, where the vehicle has to reach the highest possible velocity over 1m.

‘Last year we managed to get hold of a student kit from the SAE,’ Smith explains. ‘This included a complete scheme of work. The students had to form companies. They had visiting engineers. They had to design and produce the toy vehicle, and its body, and produce a presentation using guest speakers.’

The toy vehicle kit includes a template on which the students can plan their design. The vehicle body was tested in the University of Central England’s wind tunnel.

‘The students explored the effect of friction. They learned skills which allowed them to calculate how fast the vehicle would travel on different gear ratios. They then developed the optimum vehicle which would perform all the challenges set for it.’

The UFA will move to Birmingham’s science, innovation and technology showcase, Millennium Point, when it opens in 2001 (News, 4 December 1998). In the meantime, 1999 is to be the city’s year of science and technology.

The city of a thousand trades seems to be making every effort to secure its industrial and technology future by expanding the education of its children. For other cities, lessons are there to be learned.