Talking tech in Timaru

Pupils taking home practical skills

CLAIRE ALLISON
Last updated 14:13 10/03/2014

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For seven years, with very little fanfare, T-Tech has gone about its business of teaching technology to hundreds of year 7 and 8 students. Features editor Claire Allison went to see what goes on there.

It is a little like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

You could pass it several times a day, and never see anyone go in or out.

There is a modest wooden sign that identifies it as the Timaru Technology Education Centre, although that doesn't give much away either. A colleague, I am told, some years ago confessed to thinking the building, with its bold colours and eye-catching design, was perhaps a call centre.

But if you were to pass T-Tech, on the corner of Grey Rd and North St, at the right time of the day, you'd see a busload of children disappearing inside for "technology", emerging two hours later to return to their schools.

The facility caters for 850 year 7 and 8 (in the old money, Form 1 and 2) students each week. The closest school, Sacred Heart, walks its children to T-Tech, the others - from Timaru, Pleasant Point, St Andrews, Fairlie, Cannington and Arowhenua - make their weekly journeys to T-Tech by bus.

When those 11, 12 and 13-year-olds were actually called form one and two students, they were probably doing "manual". "Manual" is not a word Ian Poulter or Ian Fettes like to hear. What's happening at T-Tech these days goes well beyond the basic skills taught in earlier days.

The language used is surprisingly adult and workplace appropriate, considering the age of the children taught here. Design and manufacture, key competencies, design briefs. Fettes talks about the design school focus; of teaching children that if they can hold a pencil, and draw a square, a circle and a triangle, they can design. Poulter refers to meeting needs, designing solutions - real life solutions for real life problems.

What Poulter is keen to do, however, is reassure the community that those skills they remember - like cooking, sewing, or being able to use hand and power tools safely - are still being taught.

Poulter gives me the tour. He's principal of Bluestone School, which is T-Tech's governing school.

Fettes has a long career teaching technology. He was appointed manager of the centre when it opened in 2007, moving from Timaru's Watlington Intermediate, which closed in the 2005 school review.

We begin with biotechnology, one of the new technologies on offer. Teacher Mark Kiddey shows us the lavender cuttings that are growing - an example of cloning - and says there are T-Tech lavender bushes growing in many Timaru gardens now. His students will learn about aromatherapy, they will make soaps and balms, will learn about biosecurity and hydroponics.

In the next room Harriet Richards is preparing for her next food technology class. It is recognisably a kitchen, reassuringly normal ingredients - butter, sugar, eggs - are laid out ready for the next class. But, she explains, it's not about following a recipe to the letter. In her class, students are more likely to mess with the recipe to see what happens.

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But she, too, starts with the basic skills Poulter has been telling me about - teaching students how to use a knife without cutting their fingers, how to use an oven without burning themselves. But they pick it up quickly. At the end of year 8, students have a ball with a Masterchef-style challenge, taking a random ingredient and creating something with it while the clock is ticking.

Moving along, and Denise Roycroft is in textiles technology. Basics like measuring, working out, cutting - including how to use scissors properly, are where she'll start with the students. But they'll move on to a variety of projects, like making duffel bags, hats, a family "twister" game, incorporating felting into their work. They'll learn about design movements, and how to do that very essential task, sewing on a button - but even that task is part of a project.

Alex van Meygaarden is in materials technology - there are elements of the old metalwork and woodwork here, with the array of machines, dust extraction systems and the like. He shows me the fold- up chair students make, and the materials involved, speaks of levers and simple machines like wheels and pulleys.

Next door, Eric Sharples is on structures and mechanisms, which looks at basic structural properties. He points at a simple stepladder, shows what the struts are, talks of them being "under compression". The can crusher constructed in this class makes for a satisfying project as the children develop ideas, sketch them, discuss what will make for a good solution, a good design.

Last on our tour is electronics control, where teacher Suzanne Blissett shows us one of the portable alarms the Year 7 students manufacture, with its slick vacuum-moulded case, a pressure pad and the circuitry necessary to keep marauding younger siblings out of their bedrooms. Most students will not have seen an electronic component before, will certainly never have picked up a soldering iron.

Fettes explains how the 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 principle applies at the centre.

First, there is the knowledge; design and manufacture, the properties of the materials being used, are they fit for purpose?

Second come the skills - those basic skills of preparing food, or using tools.

Third is the understanding - considering what impact a biosecurity breach would have at Timaru's port, considering the effect the foods we eat have on our ability to function.

There is much more context than following, by rote, a set of instructions to make a particular item.

He says students might come to the centre thinking that they don't like English or maths or science.

But, without realising it, they'll be using those exact subjects in technology, but just in a different way - as part of what they're designing of manufacturing.

Another difference Fettes and Poulter are both keen to point out is that teachers don't stay in the same room for decades.

As Fettes said, some teachers might have taught the same subject for 25 years, rolling out the same project year after year.

At T-Tech, teachers are rotated every two to three years, and that sees them bring new skills to each classroom they teach in, to the children's benefit. Something they may have picked up while teaching electronics might well apply to textiles.

And while technology is just a small part of a student's week, the centre does get feedback from parents.

"A lot of it's very positive, they're saying what their children are doing at T-Tech they're bringing home, they're preparing meals for the family, and we had one boy fixing the kitchen cupboards."

Fettes says some children will develop an interest in textiles that sees them eventually head to university to study design.

Others find their strength is in the trades-based areas, and they head in that direction.

Former students will pop in to let the staff know where they're at; high school students stuck on a project sometimes call in for a bit of advice.

The Timaru Technology Centre arose almost phoenix-like from the scorched earth that remained of the Timaru District's schools after the 2005 Ministry of Education review.

Before that review, Timaru's Year 7 and 8 students went to Watlington Intermediate or Marchwiel School for technology.

Pleasant Point High School's unit provided an option for rural students.

But with Watlington and Pleasant Point High forced to close, and the then-Marchwiel School's technology unit also closed, an alternative was needed.

Many options were discussed - each primary school offering technology on site, students using secondary schools' facilities, or the now-closed Main School classrooms adapted for the purpose.

But, eventually, the decision was made that Timaru would have a purpose-built centre.

It is an impressive building, a "clever" building, Poulter explains, with windows designed to open and shut depending on which way the wind is blowing, with sound-proofing, energy efficiencies, its own weather station, and the ability to grow should the roll expand - a central area can be transformed into a seventh classroom if it is needed.

Fettes says he has visited a number of technology centres around the country, and has yet to see anything as good as what we have here.

Poulter says it had been hoped the centre could be a stand-alone facility, with its own identity, but the rules at the time dictated that wasn't possible, hence Bluestone School taking the umbrella role, overseeing the budget and employing the staff.

However, a T-Tech committee comprises representatives from all the client schools, as well as a representative from the business sector, secondary schools, and the Bluestone School Board of Trustees.

"So the running of this place is overseen by a management committee that means everybody has an input and a say."

- The Timaru Herald

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