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Circuit training, The National, 26.10.2010

The F1 in Schools project is now being extended to six and seven-year-olds as part of a new pilot scheme to improve creative design skills in a fun, exciting environment. Jo Wadham reports

It’s snowing at Yas Marina Circuit. No, not the cold slushy stuff, more of a polystyrene blizzard. It’s all part of a new initiative under the F1 in Schools programme aimed at introducing six to eight-year-olds to the world of Formula 1.

Now active in 30 countries and involving hundreds of children, F1 in Schools is a competition in which teams of students build a 30cm-long balsa wood racing car powered by a small gas cylinder and then race it down a 20-metre track. The current fastest time is 1.02 seconds and the average speed is 50kph.

The competition has two levels of participation: one at primary level for nine and 10-year-olds and another for 11 to 19-year-olds. But as part of a new modified version of the programme, groups of younger children can now also take part, by learning how to build model racing cars from polystyrene blocks.

Today’s session is taking place at the educational facility beside the track at Yas Marina, where Don Sankey, the manager of the F1 in Schools project for the Gulf region, is taking a break from sawing up large blocks of polystyrene.

Charlie Ball, aged seven, is in “Team Top Gear”: “I’m taking the rough bits off so it will go faster,” he explains as he sandpapers his car into shape.

Laura Hurn, aged eight, says: “I’m going to paint my car red. I’m hoping it will go fast, I want it to win.”

This new introductory scheme was conceived by Victoria Nichol, the director of Jigsaw Education, which runs two nursery schools in Abu Dhabi. She came across the F1 in Schools project through its involvement with the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi.

“As the mother of a seven-year-old, I know how at this age they love cars and Formula 1 and how good their skills are at designing and making things,” she says. ” I thought if you could pitch it at that age group, they could get a lot out of the project.”

The programme has clear educational benefits as well as being fun for the children. In the competition for older children, each team is marked in five different areas and each part of the project is devised with the schools’ core curricula in mind. The participants, who each have one of six roles – from team manager to design engineer – make an eight-minute presentation to a panel of judges which uses their English language and communication skills. Art and design skills feature not only in relation to building the car, but also in creating the team identity, uniform and logo. Maths also features prominently. The teams are awarded marks on their ability to raise sponsorship and manage a budget. The next section they are assessed on is the car, which they must design and make.

The course for the younger children has been slightly modified, reducing the teamwork aspect and replacing the balsa wood with polystyrene. But the younger children also invent their team name and design a logo on a T-shirt.

They then begin thinking about how to create a fast racing car. “We built in a little bit about aerodynamics and had the children look at a selection of vehicles and identify what makes something go fast and something go slow,” Nichol explains. “We are laying the foundations here. It’s sufficiently different but it will then feed them into the primary F1 in Schools programme and then the secondary one.”

Chris Coles is a grade five teacher at Raha International School in Abu Dhabi. Last year, his school ran the F1 in Schools programme as part of its curriculum for the grade five students’ (aged 10 to 11 years) final term. This year the project is also being run as an after-school club in the secondary school.

Raha International School teaches children the International Baccalaureate programme and F1 in Schools fits in particularly well with this, as Coles explains. “The IB curriculum is unit-based. Last year, our last unit was all about teamwork, called ‘Make It Real’ so the F1 programme lent itself quite well to it. We discussed how the teams worked, why it was hard being a team leader, what problems they came across, etc. It’s not just about cars – you don’t have to be an F1 fan to enjoy it, because it’s to do with writing letters and getting sponsorship, or graphic design. There are lots of bits of any curriculum it would lend itself to.”

In the F1 in Schools’ senior section, the students create slightly more sophisticated F1-style cars in their teams. These children compete at school level just like the primary children, and then compete at national level against other schools in the UAE. The national champions then have the opportunity to compete internationally as two teams from the UAE did this year in Singapore. One team, Team zero.9, comprising children from the Indian High school in Dubai and students from an Australian School, came away with second prize overall and the award for best collaboration and Team Impulse from Dubai College was awarded the Outstanding Sportsmanship Award.

Back at Yas Marina, Don Sankey explains that the competition for the primary-age group scene is now also undergoing rapid development in the UAE, and that we may soon see primary-age children compete at a national level.

“It’s quite exciting at the moment at primary level,” he says. “We’ve tentatively booked a date in March 2011 for our next UAE national finals and for the first time we will have a national primary competition as well.” Six UAE primary schools have so far indicated they want to take part.

As a Porsche whizzes around the track behind him at dizzying speed, it’s easy to see why this is an exciting day for those taking part. “Yes, there’s no other F1 in Schools centre in the world located on an F1 circuit,” Sankey smiles, but he’s keen to emphasise that the project is not just about fast cars.

“One of the things that we do when we take the project into schools is to explain the range of careers associated with this project,” he says. “A lot of students, boys especially, will see fast cars being raced on TV, they see the glamorous drivers, they see some people changing tyres, but they don’t associate it with the career paths that there are within this business.”

“We are out to shoot down some of the stereotypes that surround this sport.” he adds. “It’s very male-dominated so we want more girls to come along and more mixed teams to get involved. But the bottom line is for students to get engaged in something different, to have a bit of fun, and maybe just to turn on a switch in their head that they never knew existed before, and say: ‘I’m actually quite good at this, and I can utilise my curriculum strengths, whatever they may be.’”

 

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