Not the outsides but the insides surely?

clock-faceI’ve come across several requests for new projects to support a revision of current KS3 schemes of work. My usual response has been don’t start with projects, start with what you want the pupils to learn. But I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to start with an existing and somewhat limited project and revitalise it by considering what might be learned if it was extended in various ways. This led me to consider the designing and making of clock faces. Many schools get pupils at KS3 (or even KS4) to design and make clock faces, providing a bought in mechanism to move the hands. My impression is that they use this as an opportunity to explore the aesthetics of particular design movements. So we get Mackintosh or Memphis or Bauhaus derive clock faces. I’m not sure that this is the best use of precious design & technology time. Surely the interesting idea behind such work is that we can devise machines that can record the passage of time. Being able to tell the time has had a large impact on the way we live our lives. Before this was possible sun rise and sun set provided the boundaries on our days with inadequate and often poisonous lighting (oil and kerosene lamps) giving some respite from darkness. So understanding the impact of measuring time on our lives and how this can be achieved would seem to have great potential in a design & technology course that was concerned with both perspective – understanding the interaction of technology and society, and capability – designing and making things that work. So some questions to consider:

  • Why might we need clocks?
  • What do various people use clocks for?
  • Who wins and who loses when people have clocks?
  • What sorts of clocks are there?
  • When and where were different sorts of clocks invented?
  • How do they work?

The history of clocks goes back a long time, starting with sundials and water clocks. The use of pendulums and springs then allow the invention of mechanical clocks which include some very delicate and accurate components moving on jewelled bearings. Such clocks needed winding up using a hand turned key but this function was overtaken by the electric motor. And then we reach the quartz clock that uses an electronic oscillator regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time. Most modern clocks (and watches) now operate this way.

It seems to me that there has got to be some good design & technology in a consideration of clocks that goes way beyond what their faces look like. It will be no mean feat to derive a unit of work that looks at the insides as opposed to the out sides of timepieces but I think the rewards in terms of learning would be great. All the BIG ideas will be represented to some extent – materials, manufacture, functionality, design and critique. And such a unit of work could embrace making without designing, designing without making, design and making and considering consequences. I expect other areas of the curriculum would be interested – mathematics, science and history. So as we prepare for the new GCSE and start to revise our KS3/4 offerings consider what we might teach if we seriously revamped ‘the clock face’ project.

As always comments welcome.

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Baddass Biomimicry Part 2 Science fiction becomes science fact!

skeeterHave you ever watched a dragonfly? They can hover almost as if frozen in space wings beating so fast they appear as a blur, land with delicate precision on a waving blade of grass, skim gracefully over a pond and fly off at speeds that defy sight. Surely a target for biomimicry and that of course is what has happened. A helicopter used by sea rescue services based on dragonfly flight would be wonderful. Hmmm, scaling up insects is tricky. The fossil record indicates that the largest flying insects existed some 275 million years ago had wingspans of only around 700 mm (28 inches). So may be a dragonfly based rescue helicopter is conceptually inept. So in this case biomimicry has to stay in scale. In which case if you could mimic a dragonfly or aspects of a dragonfly what would you mimic. Given the aerial dexterity of the dragonfly it’s not surprising that Animal Dynamics, an Oxford University spin off, has developed Skeeter a tiny flapping winged drone specially designed for covert surveillance. Weighing no more than 30g, and designed to cost less and fly for longer than other hand-launched drones, it could, its creators claim, help reshape urban warfare. Biomimicry transforming urban warfare! It’s not difficult to see biomimicry playing out in armaments developments. Should this be discussed in D&T lessons? On the grounds of the subject reflecting activities in the world outside school it is difficult to say ‘No’. But any discussion will move into tricky territory very quickly. A surveillance drone, even a tiny one, can easily provide targeting information and missile flight path data for larger weaponised drones. And without too much difficulty be developed into a lethal weapon in its own right. Some argue that the basic technology itself is has no moral compass. The guidance technology used in missiles can just as easily be used for autonomous farm equipment. Where does this leave the designer? And where does it leave the design & technology teacher? As always comments welcome.

Baddass Biomimicry

antEarly in 2013 when there was considerable debate about the government’s proposed National Curriculum Programme of Study for design & technology. Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, one of the UKs biggest companies, criticised the government’s proposal on the following grounds: The draft proposals for design & technology did “not meet the needs of a technologically literate society. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques, such as biomimicry (how we can emulate nature to solve human problems), we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in computer-aided design, we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control, we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.” The result of such authoritative criticism was a complete revision of the proposed programme of study such that it included the following statement under the teaching of design: To use a variety of approaches, such as biomimicry and user-centred design, to generate creative ideas and avoid stereotypical responses. Although biomimicry was a non-statutory example of a design strategy it was mentioned by name.

The Design and Technology Association ran inset sessions to help teachers understand what was for many a new idea. And many teachers have since taught pupils at both KS3 and KS4 about biomimicry, particularly how designers have used it as a creative product design tool. At its most basic the development of webbed gloves and flippers to aid swimming (biomimicking a frog) and more sophisticated the use of corrugated card for a cycle helmet based on the bone structure in a woodpecker’s skull. And of course it’s possible to view the circular economy as a systems approach based on biomimicry that can be used to move the world away from a destructive linear economy.

Kill Decision CoverUnderlying this appears to be the idea of biomimicry as a benign design tool; one that can only be used for good with few if any harmful consequences. But this view misrepresents nature and the constant struggle between and within species for survival. This was made very apparent to me when I read Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. It’s a rollicking good read but I won’t go into too much detail as this will spoil the story for those who haven’t yet read this excellent piece of science fiction which borders very much on science fact. A key element of the story is to use biomimicry of weaver ants to develop swarms of lethal quadcopter drones that once unleashed can operate without human intervention and control. Weaver ants are able to communicate with one another by laying down and following pheromone trails which indicate the task to be accomplished be that foraging or territory defense. In the case of territory defense the trail will lead more and more ants to the sites where defense is necessary and even large intruders are soon overcome by the multitudes of smaller weaver ants that converge on the site. The brain power of individual weaver ants is of course very small but the colony achieves highly effective defense by getting large numbers in the right place at the right time to attack and kill the intruders. So imagine using biomimicry to transfer this ability to a swarm of drones, each drone with highly limited AI and equipped with simple but effective weapons.

Noel SharkeyThis led me to ponder the role of design strategies in general. In themselves they might be considered neutral in terms of being intrinsically good or bad but their use will of course depend on the intentions pursued by the designer. So the buck clearly stops with us humans. The case of robots and the intention to use them in warfare has led Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics & Public Engagement University of Sheffield, to urge extreme caution and argue for international conventions to govern their development. So as always with design & technology we find ourselves in territory where values are as important if not more so than knowledge, understanding and skills.