Design and technology - Systems and control

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The Independent Online

What is it? A course in which you design and make a system that does a job for you - perhaps a system that regulates the temperature or humidity in a greenhouse. It involves robotics, or the science of making life easier for humans.

Why do it? It makes you think and make your own decisions, and you get to see something through to the end that has a real purpose. "Most of the other A-levels tend to be about memory recall," says Glyn Granger, who is the chief examiner for AQA in the subject. "This involves doing something new. When the children set off on a project, they don't know the answers."

What skills do you need? It helps to have reasonable grades in maths, science and design technology at GCSE, but it is not essential. An inquiring mind is, though; one that likes solving problems. You were the sort of child who liked taking clocks apart to see what made them tick. You are practical, logical and a divergent thinker. Not much to ask, really. Says Glyn Granger: "We are a parasite subject, really. We rely on all the other subjects in the curriculum. Our students might come up with an idea through something said in another subject."

How much practical work is there? Plenty. In fact, most of the subject is taught through a practical project approach. You might come to understand microprocessors by building a robotic arm, for example. Ratio of coursework to exams: At AS-level, 40 per cent coursework to 60 per cent exams; at A2, it's the other way round.

Is it hard? It's not easy to get good grades. The students who become involved in their projects tend to end up spending a lot of time on them.

Who takes it? Two thirds boys, one third girls. Inquisitive, persevering types. You have to learn how to fail as well as how to succeed - useful training for life. It is said to have taken James Dyson 950 attempts before he finally succeeded in perfecting the bagless vacuum cleaner.

How cool is it? More popular than it used to be. Young people get the bug when they study design and technology as part of the national curriculum when they are younger.

Added value: There's talk of trips to Disneyland Paris to examine how the Space Mountain works. It has great talking-point potential for university interviews. You can take your robotic arm with you and describe how you made it.

What subjects go with it? Mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, art and design, but it really goes with anything. Some students do it purely for enjoyment, says Glyn Granger. "It gives them a chance to come into the workshop and knock the hell out of a piece of metal if they've not had a good day."

What degrees does it lead to? Engineering, design and technology, product design.

Will it set you up for a brilliant career? It could set you up for anything you want because it teaches you to think for yourself and keep on trying.

Which awarding bodies offer it? Edexcel, AQA, OCR.

How widely available is it around the country? Most schools and sixth- form colleges offer it.