Written by Mr Gareth Dyer, Teacher at Hempland Primary School, York.

As teachers, we allow, and even encourage, children to make choices in all of our subjects. Decide which method of calculation to employ in Maths; which vocabulary to use when writing; which pass to make in basketball, or which media to use in art. However, in D&T, that element of choice is often lacking, beyond simple aesthetics. Arguably, D&T is a subject where choice is most important: engineering is, after all, about problem solving, and this is even reflected in the National Curriculum: children are asked to “select from and use” tools, equipment, materials and components. Following a period of (very positive) change in D&T at Hempland Primary School, we noticed that children were not being given the opportunity to make their own design decisions, and so, building on a 3D printing revolution within our school, we decided to plan and teach a unit based on mechanisms which allowed our children to do just that. The results of this massively impacted how we will teach D&T moving forwards.

After looking into D&T at our school, we saw lots of great changes. However, we did notice that something was missing. Choice. Children were often making things following a design criteria that was too specific, or following models that did not allow for decision-making. One of the fundamental ideas underpinning a good D&T curriculum is that children can make their own decision in terms of what (and how) they design and build, aiming to achieve a purpose and audience. Even better, the children should be able to select the purpose or audience themselves. Although the children had some very good technical skills and knowledge, they were not being allowed to make design decisions themselves. A perfect example of this was the war shelters that were designed and built by the Year 6 children. Although they varied in size, and often showed some excellent technical skills, they all essentially looked like Morrison shelters, made out of square dowel.

Around this time, we took advantage of the fantastic loan scheme by CREATE Education. This not only allowed us to temporarily take ownership of a 3D printer, but also gave us access to their great online support and lesson plans. Despite starting as an absolute newbie, the friendly help provided by CREATE meant that we became, if not experts, at least confident using this innovative resource. We used the plans to teach units of 3D printing to both Year 5 and Year 6 children, and it gave us a really strong model for a high quality D&T unit.

Firstly, the children looked at existing 3D printing technologies, and the strengths and drawbacks of using 3D printing. Then, the children learned the technical skills through following instructions to make a keyring, designed on TinkerCAD. The ability to print this immediately gave the designs a purpose – something which is often lacking in D&T classrooms. Finally, the children then put their new design skills to the test: they needed to design and build a phone stand for a specific user.

Although there were examples for the children to see, these were quite varied and were more like prompts rather than designs for the children to replicate. We had 60 children design phone stands – and, incredibly, 60 very different phone stands by the end of the unit! The children revelled in the opportunity to be able to make their own decisions. The resulting stands came in a range of shapes and sizes, and did not always work – some were far too small, others would just fall over, others did not print well due to the level of detail – but all of these “fails” just taught the children new techniques, as well as the importance of the iterative design process. Children were inspired. The staff became more confident in allowing the children to make their own choices. The purchase of 2 x 3D Printers (the incredibly user-friendly UltiMaker 2+ Connect) followed.

We decided that it was important that the children built on this decision making in future D&T. The next unit that we covered in Year 6 was based on Mechanisms – specifically, designing and building a toy fairground ride that could be purchased from a shop. It needed to contain some form of rotary mechanism (we allowed the children to select which to use) and be targeted at a specific audience (again, we allowed the children to select their target user). For the first time, we also provided the children with the opportunity to select their own building materials.

As expected, the children had a wide range of ideas, from carousels to Ferris wheels to swing rides, and aimed at different audiences. One swing-chair design was inspired by His Dark Materials, aimed at a young teen; another selected bright colours for a younger audience.

Significantly, a wide range of materials were also selected in their designs: some used TinkerCAD to 3D print; others used Lego or K’Nex; still more used recycled materials, while other designs were created with Tech Card and wood.

Again, not everything worked the first time. One of the 3D printed Ferris wheels had not correctly sized the uprights, so the wheel did not fit into the stand. A K’Nex design struggled to create the strength to support a really large wheel, and a Techcard group simply could not get the pulley system to work, despite the electric motor working perfectly. This would always be the drawback of allowing the children to make their own decisions – however, the children persevered and, in the end, the rides worked brilliantly. The His Dark Materials ride, combining 3D printing, Crumble control and gears, was a particular success, as was the 3D printed pulley-powered Ferris wheel, and the
hand-powered, geared Lego ride, which would be desired by any child in a toy shop.

The units from CREATE, and the introduction of 3D printing to the curriculum, meant a big change for us in terms of giving the children freedom to make their own choices. Allowing the children to make their own design decisions meant that they were able to select from their own technical skills and knowledge to build something for a specific audience, and resulted in a huge range of finished fairground ride toys. As a teacher, it enabled me to truly see what the children were capable of, in terms of the D&T strengths, as well as understand which areas needed future teaching. We believed it was a bit of a gamble; actually it was simply good quality D&T teaching, and something which will underpin all of our D&T teaching in future. Embedding the technical skills and knowledge was vital (after all, if they can’t do the skills, how can they select the best one to use?), but in the same way that true Maths or English skills cannot be demonstrated unless they are selected and applied, simply having the skills and knowledge isn’t enough: the children must be allowed to make their own design decisions to become true engineers.

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