Technology evolution

Courses in design and technology have moved with the times. Today's students are computer wizards. Caitlin Davies reports
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Gone are the days when design and technology meant making wooden pencil holders. This year's Education Show proved that D&T students are the technologists of the 21st century, as familiar with computer-aided design as they are with hammer and nail.

Entering Hall Seven at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre, I thought I had walked on to a hi-tech factory floor. The noise was, at times, deafening. There were sewing machines, embossing machines, heat transfer presses, laser cutting systems, dust extractors: each piece of equipment newer, faster and often more expensive than its predecessor.

At times it was difficult passing any of the 130 stands without getting the hard sell, with freebies and discounts everywhere. "Can I take one of the sweets?" a student teacher from the University of East London asked at one company's stand. She was handed sweets, information sheets, free CD, booklet and trade catalogue.

"D&T moves at such a rapid rate that teachers need to see the latest developments so they can make proper choices," says Dr Val Pridmore, president of the National Association of Advisers and Inspectors for Design and Technology. She has been coming to the show for 10 years and says it gives visitors the chance to inspect goods, particularly the latest trend in height-adjustable furniture. With the Special Educational Needs and Disabilities Act of 2001 about to come fully into force, these are a must.

This is the 26th year the show has been held and the emphasis is on the use of information and communications technology. Though many schools cannot afford what is on offer, that does not stop teachers and lecturers drooling.

Andrew Ash and Claire Ryder are studying design and technology at Loughborough University. They are working on computer-aided design assignments. "I'm most impressed by the numerically-controlled mach-ines," says Ryder. "Our teacher is over there trying to buy more. It's what everyone aspires to." Like many of the products on show, the machines were first used in industry and they don't come cheap, ranging in price from £11,000 to £20,000.

But innovation and good design is just as important as equipment. Take the inflatable travel cot designed by Jo Bradford at the University of Wolverhampton. She patented it last year and it's now in production in China.

At the younger end of the design market are a group of students from Warrington making dragsters powered by air motors. What's unusual is that the pupils are from five different schools - primary and secondary - and are working as a successful team.

The purpose of the Warrington display is to demonstrate ways to tackle the transition from Key Stage 2 to Key Stage 3. "We have to make sure that what primary students are learning is valuable and will continue when they reach secondary rather than starting from scratch," explains one of their teachers. D&T, she says, should be exciting and hands-on, and there's definitely an air of excitement in the hall, even in the toilets where girls are discussing cross-hatching and 3D printers.

"This is the major trade event of the year," enthuses Richard Green, deputy chief executive of the Design and Technology Association, an educational charity formed in 1989. "It enables teachers to get out of the school, see what's happening and make best value decisions."

To Green, one of the most exciting trends of this year's show is that most stands have an ICT provision. The use of ICT in the design process - with computer-aided design and manufacturing - means students can produce high-quality products.

And British business wants students who are not afraid of new technology. That means young people like Iain Purvis who, instead of taking a gap year, stayed on at John Cabot City Technology College in Bristol where students formed their own company. Rolls-Royce is now one of their major clients and Purvis is now working on a project involving the Pegasus engine.

As I leave Hall Seven I'm disappointed to find one of the NEC's escalators is not working - presumably a design fault. But I did get eight free pens, two apples, a sample coffee cake, and a catalogue of D&T Christmas presents.