students inventing tomorrow (2001)

Inventing Tomorrow

A feature for The Guardian’s Tomorrow’s World Live Show supplement by Roger Frost

Earlier this month six leading organisations went out to schools to canvass students’ ideas about how they would like to see things twenty years from now. Primed with a chat and a glimpse of how we saw the future of health, homes and more, the pupils aged from 14-15 years let their imaginations rip.

The pupils were part of  a project, called Inventing Tomorrow devised by NESTA, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts together with the DfEE.

Set up two years ago, by an Act of Parliament NESTA’s brief has been to bring social, economic and cultural benefits to the UK. Funded by investing its ‘endowment’ – £200 million of National Lottery money, they have an education programme that aims to increase creativity, and in particular help to people to engage in science, technology and the arts.

This month, for example NESTA teamed up with the Royal Society of Arts to explore what the UK could be doing to nurture its gifted and talented children. Ideas such as developing a curriculum to stretch children and achieve their maximum potential, and offering out-of-school specialist activities were among the items discussed.

Those with great ideas in need of funding will want to take note of NESTA’s Fellowship programme. Awards of up to £75,000 are available.

The Inventing Tomorrow project is interesting not just for the ideas triggered when pupils dream about the future. Every teacher we spoke to was in awe of the ways that pupils set about their task. Their pupils worked in teams and discussed first thoughts; some built models and made sketches while others made slide shows. They worked in earnest, even with passion and opposite we offer a taster of what the pupils have in store for this week’s Tomorrow’s World Live Event. Here’s an idea – triggered by the education group’s proposal: ask the pupils at the show, not what they invented, but the way in which got there. Then consider, as that group hit upon, that this project hits upon some very interesting ways to learn and develop talent.   


At the show you can see the project teams at work in a documentary made by Youth Culture TV. Look out for NESTA’s Inventing Chamber where everyone can add their ideas about the year 2020 on a huge ‘wall of invention’.

Airports – BAA Gatwick and The Warwick School, Surrey

Just a few minutes at Gatwick Airport, had The Warwick School pupils thinking. Explained their teacher Ian Wilson, “They saw trolleys everywhere, people milling around aimlessly and asking where to go. For a technological world it seemed crazy.” The children thought that their air ticket should be ‘smart’. You’d swipe it on arrival and have your palm print scanned to match you to it. There’d also be a ‘smart’ box to put luggage in, and it would be taken straight to the plane under computer control. So no more trolleys. You would get into a 3-dimensional lift – a glass buggy that goes up, down and sidewise. It would read your ticket and if your flight was due soon it would take to straight to the plane where you palm would be scanned again. Otherwise the glass buggy, would offer you a choice of shops and eateries to visit, and take you there. When it was time to fly, the buggy, or the checkout at the shops would tell you to get back in your transport.  Concludes Ian, “It was interesting that the children had had the buggy transport idea and when they met BA they discovered they were thinking along a similar line! It led one pupil to muse that few people have totally original ideas”.

Engineering – BAE Systems and Calday Grange Grammar School, The Wirral

Calday Grange Grammar School’s visit to BAE’s Sowerby Research Centre trigged a brainstorm after seeing a MEM, device that could sense things and make things happen. No bigger that the width of a human hair, the boys designed these amazing devices into the lock of a car such that it would respond to a fingerprint and you would no longer need a key. They saw them as useful in measuring the air drag on a vehicle and the state of the engine to fine tune its performance.  Fitted to a pane of glass, an MEM used to sense car decceleration for a air bag, would be a sensor for a burglar alarm system. Placed inside a human, different types of sensor might monitor blood pressure, do blood analysis, act as detectors of movement to somehow avert travel sickness. Used as tracking devices, they might Given the size of these sensors, prisoners on parole could have them placed under the skin so that they could be tracked. Pupils saw a incredible gyroscope sensor, fitted to human allowed a dummy to mimic the head’s movements. This they placed as a device for remotely operating equipment and for entertainment in the home.Their teacher Stephanie Goring was impressed. “This has allowed them to feel that any thing’s possible and they can think the unthinkable

Learning – BBC Education and Deer Park School, Cirencester

After visiting the BBC to see new learning packages that would use high-speed Internet access, the 15 year olds at Deer Park School, Cirencester set to work thinking about technology and learning. In the children’s vision, tomorrow’s classroom was an interactive environment where they could completely immerse themselves. With a shortage now of space on the planet, school would be underground, in a warren of interconnecting tubes. Their classroom would have wall panel screens and virtual reality features. Here they could actually experience things, like visiting the jungle and they could move around in its virtual vegetation. With the Internet now mature, they envisaged teacher-less classrooms where one teacher addressed millions at once. More than receive lectures, school would become more a place to work with others to find out things out. Instead of a laptop, children would use a ‘slate-top’ – a hand held pocket-size PC – more convenient than an exercise book and with exceptional access to information.Tomorrow’s home would be a place for learning too. Here an interactive panel would fit within the space of a window. You would see outside, by powered by solar energy, it’s panes featured screen technology that made the home’s central point for learning through film, news and information programmes.

Health – Department of Health & Wymondham College, Norfolk

To solve the problem of waiting lists and provide easy access to services, pupils at Wymondham College, Norfolk felt that tomorrow’s health care could be based on a mobile servicing unit. This ‘super-ambulance units’, staffed by well trained technicians would visit communities and offer treatment or simple operations. If the pupils were positive about tele-medicine procedures, where a specialist surgeon operates on someone remotely, they were less happy about having an eye operation run completely by a computer program.  

Aware of the need for conventional in-patient care, their re-designed hospital would run more like a hotel. It would be friendly, faster and comfortable so you would feel much more like a guest. To help in emergencies, medical records would be on a credit card and readable at a swipe. If people felt OK about it, records might be stored a chip kept behind the ear. 

Concerned about lost opportunities to save someone with a serious back injury, they said that not enough care happens at the scene of accidents, so they felt that more expertise, and one day even spare parts, could be brought to the patient the scene of an accident.

They children likened accident departments to garages servicing people with the future opening the possibility of linking people up to a diagnostic unit.  

Home – Cisco Systems and Stockley Park School

Cisco Systems, the company behind the Internet’s infrastructure, showed Stockley Park School students a fully-networked home with endless remote control potential. A wireless notepad allowed you to control the house heat and lighting. And cameras allowed room-to-room monitoring so you could check the baby; never mind talk to whoever who called at the door, even if you were at the office. Given one dream home pupils took things further. For the bedroom, they envisaged a bed with a slide over glass bubble so that they could breathe pure air pumped in at night to make up for the pollution they would need to inhale during the day. And choosing clothes would be an in-bed activity: they might dress a virtual image and their cupboard would select the clothes they had chosen to save them searching for them. The garage would feature a docking port where their battery powered vehicle could not only recharge, it would check the oil, keep track of its servicing needs and book these, over the Internet, with the garage. The television would be a flat wide screen hung on the wall, channels would be changed by voice commands and the picture would change when it was not used, to blend it into the wallpaper.

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