It is more than 50 years since Harold Wilson said that the country’s future would need to be forged in the ‘white heat’ of technology, but for all our digital innovation in the virtual world, the flame of which Wilson spoke now flickers in danger of extinction. Recent years have seen concerted efforts to re-invent technical education in the hope that by going back to schools to nurture young people’s curiosity in science, design and technology, they will be encouraged to explore the wide range of careers available in manufacturing and engineering. But it all has to start somewhere.
Which is where Rotary’s annual Technology Tournament comes in. Recently accredited by the British Science Association to the CREST Discovery Awards – Britain’s largest national awards scheme for project work in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects – in Bournemouth it has been running since 2014.
‘This is Rotary trying to focus young people’s attention on the field of design and technology and I’m pleased to report that on the evidence we have seen in Bournemouth, there are plenty of ideas out there,’ says Trevor Clements, who was chairman for the second local tournament, succeeding Vivian Dunn, whose personal drive and dedication were instrumental in getting the whole thing off the ground. ‘There’s no shortage of interest in designing and making things – there is some really original thinking going on, in fact – but what might have been lacking is a focus for that interest. We’ve lost so much of our traditional manufacturing and engineering skills base in this country and I firmly believe we are going to need it again.’
The tournament attracts between 140 and 160 participants aged 11 to 18 from Key Stages 3, 4 and 5 in teams of four from some fifteen schools in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Ringwood. The teams are all given a brief – last year’s was to design and build a drawbridge over a simulated river strong enough to support a 1kg weight and allow barges underneath it – with prizes awarded to teams in each age category. Designs must be built and tested on the day to demonstrate that they completely fulfil the specifics of the brief. Each team must also submit a portfolio containing all drawings and working sketches with details of design principles and analysis, the organisation of the team and how ideas were developed and problems overcome.
During the judges’ deliberations, speakers from major organisations talk about career opportunities and training pathways for students. Last year it was pioneering military, marine and aircraft technology company BAE Systems, from Christchurch. This year a team from the Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at Bovington Camp will talk about technological opportunities in the armed forces.
As before, this year’s tournament will be at Bournemouth Collegiate School and, although members of the local committee will have tested it to ensure that it can be done, the design brief remains a closely guarded secret until the day. Following a project briefing, teams are all issued with the same materials and start work at 9.30. Their portfolios are due at midday and must be complete by 2.30 before the prize-giving at 3.00. It is a packed day, but if previous years are anything to go by, filled with good humour, friendly competition and stacks of good ideas.
‘Last year’s winner at KS4 was one of the most original solutions I have ever seen – the way they economised their use of materials was really impressive,’ says Trevor. ‘We want to challenge their ingenuity and really test the students in an environment where they can still have fun. And there are plenty of takers – we had 40 tables booked last year and I think we’re up to 45 for this year. Nothing is too much trouble for Bournemouth Collegiate School in putting on the event and we have some excellent supporting relationships with sponsors, particularly with BAE Systems and with the involvement of Dr David Marsh, a director of Marden Edwards in Wimborne, as head judge. He was in the chair last year and moved the tournament on significantly. Part of the sponsors’ interest is that they can appeal directly to students to promote their apprenticeships, but that is in line with the aims of the tournament nationally.’
In recent years great strides have been made to emphasise inclusivity – that careers in design and technology are open to all – but with just seven per cent of apprenticeships in engineering and manufacturing being taken by girls, there is still a way to go. That said, the percentage of female participants in the Rotary Technology Tournament is much higher. ‘Fifty years ago, the few women who did work in the industry used to be somewhat patronised, but I’m pleased to say things have changed considerably,’ says Trevor. ‘These days it’s routine to find women in senior positions in all sectors, particularly in petro-chemical engineering.
‘It might not always feel like it at the time, but when you retire and look back at your career, you’ll probably have had a really interesting working life and be left with something real to show for it. You’ll be able to see the organisations you’ve helped and they could have been in the fields of food technology, paper pulp, steelmaking, boat and shipbuilding, aircraft manufacture – the list is almost endless, such is the need for technologists, engineers and designers. In a world where so much is focussed on celebrity, we have lost sight of the former heroes and the leaders of technology such as Sir Frank Whittle, Sir Charles Parsons and George and Robert Stephenson.
• Rotary is not alone in appealing for younger members interested in joining an international service organisation dedicated to providing humanitarian services, encouraging high ethical standards and promoting peace and goodwill. Find out more at www.rotarygbi.org.
• First published in Dorset Life.