Timely words from Louise Davies

As you will know the Awarding Organisations will be posting the Contextual Challenges tomorrow. I’m sure we are all both interested and nervous. But it is very important that we play this completely by the rules and do nothing that compromises the NEA as happened with the NEA in the Computing GCSE leading to the withdrawal of the NEA as a form of assessment. Louise Davies has posted these timely words of warning on here Food Teachers website.

I am really worried that D&T teachers do not seem to be aware of the new NEA regulations as their NEA is about to be released (D&T is a year behind Food). Some are approaching this like ‘old coursework’, thinking they can use the same writing frames and teach the students through the assessment. This food group is much more knowledgeable than that, so if you have D&T colleagues, please take a few moments to show them your JCQ document. What is the worst that can happen? 1. Your school centre is accused of Malpractice 2. D&T loses NEA as Computing GCSE did once answers and writing frames are posted on websites (this has already started to happen) 3. Food GCSE loses its NEA as if it is found that Computing and D&T could not be trusted with NEA, who knows OFQUAL might take ours away as a consequence. A 5 MINUTE CHAT with D&T is needed, please help them see what is regulated – https://www.jcq.org.uk/exams-office/non-examination-assessments


Robots but not as we know them

IMG_1804Every now and then New Scientist publishes a piece that almost unintentionally raises profound issues about technological possibilities. This was the case with an article published in the 12 May 2018 issue; the title – Bionic beetles take to the skies. It describes the work of Hirotaka Sato from Nanyang Technology University. He and his research team took male Mecynorhina torqata beetles and implanted electrodes into their flight muscles and used electrical pulses to steer the direction and speed of their flight. The upshot is that this research shows that truly bio-hybrid robots the size of insects are a real possibility. These ‘bionic beetles’ have the potential to act as the first arm of search and rescue in ways far superior to current drone technology. Bio-hybrid robotics is likely to be developed initially across a wide range of insects. And here’s the question: Why should it stop at insects? It’s easy to see that other more intelligent animals, dogs and dolphins, for instance might easily become part of the development trajectory of bio-hybrid robotics. And of course someone somewhere will think about and investigate the possibility of human-hybrid robotics. Initially this is likely to be in the search of the development of alternatives to and improvements of prosthetic limbs for those who have suffered accidents.

But will it stop there? Such technology will almost certainly be developed to enable enhancement and in the future, for those who can afford it, integration of such technology into their bodies to provide improved physical performance will be possible. They will have become trans-humans. Throw in the idea that governments might use this technology to enhance military performance and we appear in dystopian science fiction territory but it might not be science fiction but technology fact. The trajectory of any technology is inevitably uncertain but as we move along any trajectory it seems essential to ask with regard to what we might be able to do “We can, but should we?” For those who teach design & technology this surely must be a key message in our teaching.

As always comments welcome.

240px-Cyberman_2013PS Have been unable to resist the connection between this article and Dr Who episodes from my childhood, my children’s childhood and their children’s childhood – Cybermen!

What does technology want?

For those of us who teach design & technology a question must be what should we teach our students about the nature of technology and get them to consider the extent to which us humans can influence the technologies that are developed and what they might be used for? Kevin Kelly has an interesting viewpoint on this. Currently he is Senior Maverick for Wired and is well known for his provocative and unconventional views on the nature of technology. More details of his extraordinary life and work can be found here.

PortraitHe views technology as a conglomeration of individual technologies linked together into an overall system which he calls the ‘technium’ that has the properties we associate with a complex living being and as such has needs and wants which it tries to meet. He explores this idea in depth is his book What technology wants. He identifies three interacting influences that govern the technium:


  • The primary driver is pre-ordained development – what technology wants.
  • The second driver is the influence of technological history, the gravity of the past, as in the way the size of a horse’s yoke determines the size of a space rocket.
  • The third force is society’s collective free will in shaping the technium, or our choices.

Buzz AldrinKelly sees the first driver as the most significant with the second as an inevitable influence on the first driver and the third driver, how humans respond in the way they contribute to the development of technology and their reactions to it, as the smallest influence on how technology plays out in the world. This seems to explain why Buzz Aldrin was able to admonish the US government with his famous quote, “You promised me Mars colonies and I got Facebook!”

So where will technology take us if it has its way? My cousin Geoff sent me this list of possibilities with regard to the way the technium will behave with regard to automobiles:

  • Auto repair shops will disappear. A gasoline engine has 20,000 individual parts. An electrical engine has 20. Electric cars are sold with lifetime guarantees and are only repaired by dealers. It takes only 10 minutes to remove and replace an electric engine. Faulty electric engines are not repaired in the dealership but are sent to a regional repair shop that repairs them with robots. Essentially, if your electric “Check Motor” light comes on, you simply drive up to what looks like a car wash. Your car is towed through while you have a cup of coffee and out comes your car with a new engine.
  • Gas stations will go away. Parking meters will be replaced by meters that dispense electricity. All companies will install electrical recharging stations.
  • The first self-driving cars will appear for the public in 2018 (that’s now). Around 2020, the complete industry  will start to be disrupted. People won’t want to own a car any more. A person will call a car with his/her phone, it will show up at their location and drive them to their destination. They will not need to park it, only pay for the driven distance and can be productive while driving. The very young children of today will never get a driver’s license and will never own a car. A baby of today will only see personal cars in museums.

Are these predictions realistic? And if so what is driving them? Is it what we want or technology wants?

Finally I think we should note a quote from the late, great Douglas Adams about our reaction to technologies from the book The Salmon of Doubt

  1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
  2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
  3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Our students will be in the number 2 stage but we might want to give them pause for thought in the light of Buzz Aldrin’s disappointment in technology and the possibility that little is actually within our control.

As always comments welcome.

Diplodocus isn’t a dinosaur OMG!!! Scientific truth is a function of time

Be warned this isn’t usually what I write about on this blog but this weeks (5 May 2018) New Scientist has a fascinating piece on dinosaurs which I feel impelled to share. I must confess to becoming interested in all things prehistoric since I attended primary school. Then, the latest educational technology was the radio, and a particular favourite of mine was first thing Monday morning – How things began. It was a weekly trip along the geological column starting at the Cambrian and travelling, over the weeks, right up to the Pleistocene and of course meeting the dinosaurs in the Mesozoic. Each episode involved the presenter travelling back in time, observing and reporting on the flora and fauna at that time and getting into a life-threatening scrape from which he escaped just in time. I was captivated by prehistory and particularly dinosaurs. My final primary school project was writing a short ‘book’ entitled Jurassic Age Dinosaurs.


I maintained my interest and was particularly intrigued when the debate about dinosaurs moved on to consider whether they might be hot blooded and not at all like the reptiles we have on Planet Earth today. I taught about this in a general science course in the late 70’s as part of understanding how scientists use evidence to develop explanations. In more recent times I’ve been intrigued by idea that birds are the descendants of dinosaurs despite the existence of a small group of scientists which name themselves BAND – birds are not dinosaurs. The book Feathers is a great read if you’re interested in this debate. But what particularly intrigued me in the New Scientist article was the idea that dinosaurs as a group do not actually exist.

In 1887 Harry Selley identified two distinct sorts of animals from the Mesozoic: ornithiscian and saurischian depending on their hip structure and put forward the idea that as such they did not have a common ancestor and hence did not belong to the same group of animals. His idea was rejected despite this difficulty and the scientific community and the general public believed in the idea of dinosaurs. By 1984 both ornithiscian and saurischian were deemed to have a common ancestor hence dinosaurs were a legitimate group and this included present day birds. The evidence for this decision comes from cladistics which uses a wide range of differences and similarities to group animals according to their shared evolutionary history. Early in 2017 a reworking of the clade data put diplodocus outside the dinosaur group – the nation’s favourite not a dinosaur! Later in 2017 the data was revisited again and the dinosaur family tree was revised to include diplodocus. But there is still uncertainty. To my mind all this adds up to a wonderful story illustrating the nature of science; which is that, in the light of observation, evidence and interpretation, what is true today might not be true tomorrow.

As always comments welcome.

The case for electric cars

This blog post started when I signed a Greenpeace petition aimed at Volkswagen to stop producing diesel cars https://secure.greenpeace.org.uk/page/s/volkswagen-ditch-diesel-now

I posted the following on Facebook: Well worth signing IMHO, transport emissions are the big problem with regard to global warming so it would be good for diesel to go followed in fairly short order by petroleum

Dave Hills Taylor replied : I have one of their TSI petrol engines that they are currently pushing – these give the performance people want from a VW but with smaller engines and at much lower revs and hence lower emissions. VW have made a mess of things with dieselgate but this is a step in the right direction. Obviously electric cars have to be the future long term.

Then my son Tom joined in: Problem with electric cars is that they don’t go anywhere near as far on a single charge as a liquid fuelled car does on one tank of petrol or diesel. The idea of stopping every two hours (at least) to put my car on charge for 30 minutes – complete nightmare. Once that’s changed maybe they’ll be a more attractive option.

I replied: I agree but battery technology is rapidly improving. I know they aren’t meant for cars but Elon Musk’s battery development in Oz is impressive,  so I think it’s only a  matter of time.471769860.0-1

Then Tom wrote: Will happily make the swap in the future once the technology is delivering at a reasonable cost. Electric cars are stupidly expensive compared to ‘old fashioned’ ones.

And I replied: Not if you added to the cost of old fashioned cars a tax that accounted for the environmental damage they do. And there is so much less to go wrong with an electric car lots less parts.

Then Tom wrote: The nearest I’d get to electric at the moment due to the size of car I’d need is a hybrid. And just looked at my lease pricing for appropriately sized car for our family needs and it’s more than 50% extra every month. Price needs to come down before the man on the street will adopt.

I replied: You’re right but with the right incentives the price will come down and we all need to think of the planet.

Tom wrote: It’s quite simple really, the manufactures need to take the lead, if they were thinking of the planet then they’d make the cars affordable then more people would buy them and we’d have greater adoption the electric car. But the problem of battery life means purely electric cars are only good for short around town journeys. Another couple years and I’m sure the picture will be different. Fingers crossed.

I replied: Dead right – manufacturers are key but government and the people can have an influence so I’m keen for a bit more support for environmental groups and their lobbying and pressure on manufacturers to become an election issue.

Tom wrote: If you really want to get into it you also need property developers to be building housing with car charging facilities from the outset. That’s another cost that will need to be considered at some point as and when we get one to add to our 116 year old property. (Not really into the idea of trailing a lead out the living room window). Also not quite sure how you deal with charging of cars where residents have to park on the roadside, i.e. don’t have garage or off road parking on their property. The ambulance chasers will have a field day with claims from people who’ve tripped over or injured themselves on electric cables lying over the paths to the road.

I replied: All these technical problems can be solved if there is political will. I remember when it was economically expedient to stop baking coal to produce coal gas and use North Sea gas instead. Every gas cooker in the country had to be modified and cooker manufacturers started producing cookers that worked on natural as opposed to coal gas. If we could do that then we ought to be able to do something similar with regard to charging electric cars.

Tom wrote: And just another thing, well two things, 1) if we did have an electric car and came to visit you in an electric car where could we charge up once we’d got to yours. And 2) Louise has just informed me that different makes of car have different style plugs (FFS that’s as bad as these electric / gas smart meters not being a standard so you can’t switch suppliers and stay SMART) and there’s a number 3. So 3) you actually have to subscribe to different charging point suppliers. Change is always different and something businesses are always facing so doing that with a population is a massive challenge.

I replied: Definitely a massive challenge but what else would one expect when the fate of the planet is at stake. Oh and by the way, this is a great conversation.

All this led me to think about the way we might teach young people about the problems facing the planet and the role of electric cars in the solutions. It’s easy to say we should go electric but as Tom pointed out it’s much easier said than done. We certainly won’t be able to go electric without auto manufacturers stepping up to the plate and playing a major role. Government will have a major role in providing incentives both to the manufacturer and the motorist. And in democracies the general populace will have a role in voting in such a way that government has a mandate to provide these incentives. As with all technology it’s a complex combination of the technical, the political, the economic and the social. This is by no means an ‘easy teach’ but if we are to produce an informed general public that plays its part in lobbying government then its something D&T teachers should prioritise.

And then by chance just before I began to write this post I came across an article in January 29 edition of Time entitled China takes pole position in the electric car race. Some key quotes:

  • China (not a democracy) has offered subsidies to buyers to the tune of $15,000 per vehicle,
  • Threatened to block automakers that don’t make electric vehicles from selling traditional cars,
  • Funded electric vehicle infrastructure like charging stations across the country’s highway network.
  • China is expected to spend $60 billion in electric-vehicle subsidies in the half decade preceding 2020.
  • Chinese automakers are expected to produce more than 4.5 million electric vehicles annually in 2020 compared with 1 million from Tesla.

To come full circle, elsewhere in this issue of Time a piece about the future of transport commented on the cooperation between Google and Volkwagen to build a quantum computer which will enable research to focus on three areas: traffic optimization, materials simulation for vehicle construction and battery research, and the development of new learning processes and AI processes needed for self driving cars. The CIO of Volkswagen, Martin Hofmann, is quoted as saying, “Quantum computers give us a completely new dimension. In 10 years, they will be orchestrating mobility in metropolitan areas, routing autonomous vehicles, predicting traffic flows and optimizing urban mobility.

I’ll finish with a quote Alfonso Albaisa, SVP for Global Design Nissan Motor Company, “It is a thrilling time to be a designer. We are being asked to dream.” How often do we enable the young people we teach to dream designerly dreams?

As always comments welcome


As a courtesy I ran the post by Tom and he commented, “As a teacher I personally would probably make more of a point of medium term change. For example, it currently takes me 10 minutes (max) to refuel my car (and pay for the fuel) enabling it to travel a distance of up to 500 miles. Lots of vehicles can use a petrol station in a single day. That isn’t currently possible with an electric car due to the amount of time required to fully charge an electric car or the distance it can travel on a single charge. We aren’t going to get an electric equivalent over night therefore we need to think about changes that move us in the right direction and enable people to adopt electric cars and this isn’t just getting government backing but also I think local authority. One way of recognising this in a class room environment would be to ask the students where they (or their parents) would charge an electric car if they owned one. Or what changes would need to be made to enable them to have an electric car. And that would come back to my point about charging cables out of windows and over pavements.

Now here’s a thought, a class of year 11 or 12 students using what their parents have said about charging electric cars as the basis for interviewing a local councillor about transport policy. All part of their ‘considering the consequences of technology’ D&T lessons focusing on important local issues.


Will this report make a difference?

It is generally acknowledged that the proportion of the future workforce with engineering and other STEM skills will significantly determine the UK’s future economic success. Yet the low visibility of engineering in our schools means that the nation is heavily reliant on a narrow cadre of young people, often from families with engineering heritage, to become the nation’s industrialists, manufacturers, innovators and designers. The Fourth Industrial Revolution will require a technically-skilled workforce from more diverse backgrounds and with a wider range of interests and talents.

There have been a plethora of reports extolling the virtues of education for engineering in secondary schools in recent years. The sad fact is that they have made very little difference to the status of subjects that support education for engineering and the numbers of young people studying named engineering courses at schools has remained low. One can but hope that the new report from the Institution Of Mechanical Engineers, “We think it is important but we don’t quite know what it is” The culture of engineering in schools  will not suffer the same fate.

The report is the culmination of two research studies that explored perceptions and experience of engineering in secondary school education. The first study sought to understand how 11-14 year old pupils, their parents, teachers, school governors and school leaders, frame engineering. The second presented a deeper engagement with engineering through the experience of post-16 students, participating in bespoke engineering debating competitions run jointly by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Ideas. This report calls on Government, education practitioners and the engineering community to act together to ensure that more young people discover what engineering is, both as a creative intellectual process and a rich source of future career opportunity.

The report makes four recommendations

  1. As part of its industrial strategy, Government should situate engineering at the heart of schools education by:
  • Setting up a working group of leading educationalists and other stakeholders to review and report on innovative ways to integrate engineering into young people’s education
  • Appointing a nationally respected Schools Engineering Champion to provide a channel of communication between schools, Government and industry, and to advocate the wider cultural value of greater technological literacy alongside the economic rationale for investing in skills to prepare for the Fourth Industrial Revolution
  1. National Education Departments should begin this process by ensuring that engineering is integral to classroom learning by:
  • Advocating curricula that better reflect the importance of the made world to modern society, and make explicit reference to the engineering applications of science, mathematics, and design and technology
  • Promoting approaches to teaching that emphasise and value engineering ‘thinking skills’ and problem-based learning
  1. Individual schools should adopt an engineering vision and strategy, with support from local employers and national governors’ associations, which would include:
  • Appointing a member of the school senior leadership team as an Engineering & Industry Leader to establish and communicate a vision for the school and to drive change
  • Appointing a dedicated Industry School Governor to work alongside and advise the Engineering & Industry Leader, and to embed employer relationships in school governance
  • Implementing a robust careers strategy such as the benchmarks set out in The Gatsby Foundation’s Good Career Guidance report, with special emphasis on embedding careers awareness in the curriculum
  1. The engineering community should present a unified narrative around engineering that will be attractive and relevant to a wider range of students by:
  • Stressing the creative problem-solving nature of engineering, its social benefits and relevance to individuals
  • Providing opportunities for students to take part in activities that explore the political, societal and ethical aspects of technology.

For those of us who support education for engineering these recommendations will seem eminently sensible and that the various bodies charged with taking them forward should do just that. But will this be the case? Who will act as agent provocateur with those agencies and organisations called upon to take action to ensure that this report, like so many before it, does not sink into oblivion? So I’m asking that Peter Finegold, the Head of Education and Skills at the IMechE uses his influence and that of the engineering community to galvanise action with regard to Recommendations 1 and 2. Clearly all the professional engineering institutions, the Royal Academy of Engineering and employers have their parts to play with regard to Recommendation 4 although I think it will be necessary to identify a focus for this support if it is to be effective. As to Recommendation 3 I think design & technology departments in individual schools can and should support an engineering vision and strategy. Readers will have noted that I have used the term ‘education for engineering’ not ‘engineering education’. I firmly believe that teaching young people design & technology at school is much more likely to open their eyes to worthwhile technical careers in general as well as engineering in particular than named engineering courses. Such teaching will not only predispose some young people to consider a career in engineering but will give all young people studying the subject a positive attitude towards and appreciation of the contribution designers, technologists and engineers make to our society.

The report argues that ‘the made world’ should have a much higher profile in the school curriculum. In response, my message is simple – if we want more young people to understand the made world and engage in STEM careers then we need to “BIG UP” design & technology and make sure the new GCSE is a huge success.

As always comments welcome and I’ll be happy to forward these to Peter at theIMechE.


You may consider the youtube video Slaughterbots  a piece of science fiction but that would I think sell it short. I prefer to think of it as a thought experiment with regard to how swarm robots coupled face recognition software might be used as autonomous killer robots. That is robots who can decide for themselves when to kill a human target when the face recognised matches a ‘threat’ identified by those who own and control the deployment of the swarm robots. It’s easy to see this as fanciful but many serious folk are taking the possibility of autonomous killer robots very seriously. From a government’s point of view deploying robot soldiers as opposed to human soldiers has many advantages, not the least the lack of human casualties. At the moment robot soldiers of various kinds operate in collaboration with humans who have the ultimate ‘say’ with regard to a ‘kill decision’. This was explored effectively in the film Eye in the Sky Face recognition software played a significant part in the human decision to initiate a lethal strike. So Eye in the Sky to some extent endorses the thesis in Slaughterbots of the near reality of autonomous killer robots. The use of swarms of killer robots reduces the research and development costs significantly – each bot is cheap and mass manufacture is relatively inexpensive and the software guiding swarm behaviour is not that complex – as indicated in the youtube video. Where is this issue taken seriously – look no further than the Ban Lethal Autonomous Weapons website This provides a call to action and links to a campaign to stop killer robots

This is an important issue facing society and the question for us involved in teaching young people is to what extent should such an issue be explored in school? One of the justifications for teaching design & technology as part of a general education for all young people is that it introduces them to such issues and gives them the intellectual tools to think about them in a critical yet constructive way. I look to the day when such issues feature in the written examination of the recently introduced D&T GCSE. Would this be too much to ask of a GCSE introduced to reinvigorate the subject?

As always comments welcome.