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A year of Leaving Cert Technology

St. Gerald’s College, Castlebar is a De La Salle boy’s school with approx 615 students. I began teaching the Leaving Cert Technology course in Sept 07 with fifteen students. By the beginning of October two of the students had decided that it wasn’t for them as they hadn’t done any of the main feeder subjects and found the amount of work needed to catch up to be too much. One of the remaining thirteen was a German exchange student who returned home in Feb 08. He really enjoyed the subject remarking that they had no comparable subject in Germany.

  • Most of the remaining students seem to really enjoy the subject for a number of reasons:Most of them are already technologists in the sense that they are the kind of people that like taking things apart, although not necessarily putting them back together, and generally fiddling around with mechanisms and electronics etc. They easily accept that there is no perfect answer to any technological design problem and understand that although the Internet is the ultimate library, the lights are off and all the books are on the floor. 
  • Each student has his own laptop on which we try to do everything from taking notes, drawing and designing to programming. This is not always possible as we have a small network in the room that appears to have its own innate intelligence and a deep dislike for any type of power stoppage. Students have access to a shared folder containing a vast array of resources including all the material given by T4 during the in-service days. They all have the same material on their PC’s at home and a 2 GB memory stick that they use to keep it updated. In reality, most of them have far more ICT skills than myself and when faced with an unusual problem regarding MS Office for example, they know which of the other lads will know the answer.
  • The introduction of PIC technology using the T4 training board has been a great success. Most of the students had built simple circuits before on either strip-board or on PCB to varying degrees of success. As a result they were absolutely amazed at the complexity of circuit that can easily be built using the PIC training board. Of course they don’t fully understand how the PIC circuitry operates yet (and indeed, neither do I!!) beyond the basics of input, process and output but this hasn’t curtailed them in any way. They each have a copy of the software at home and all of them are able to program and edit the 25 examples given in the T4 PIC Training Manual. The better students now frequently arrive with more and more advanced versions of the programs they have devised for their 5th year project.

Of course, we have not yet built or used one of the student project boards suitable for their Leaving Cert project, and that no doubt will bring a new set of problems to be overcome. However, we hope to have done so by end of Sept ’08 in preparation for the Leaving Cert project in November.  We aim to build our projects using mainly acrylic in its various forms, and use the student PIC board to control whatever it is going to do. The fact that we can buy the finished PCB for the student PIC board should make this a realistic option.

The uptake for next year appears to have increased to twenty-one students so far but you never know until September. I have spoken to all our TY’s and their parents about the subject in advance of choosing their Leaving Cert subjects. The main point I tried to make was that Leaving Cert Technology suited those students who liked finding out how things work and who were happy studying a subject containing a lot of project work. Some students work best in a very structured environment. In class for example they might do examples one and two, followed by questions one and two based on these and then check their answers in the back, with the teacher or by substitution etc. While tackling a design brief in Technology they may have to consult five or six books, ten or fifteen websites, use two or three different software applications and work with a multitude of materials and components. Ultimately there will be many ‘correct’ solutions to the brief although many of them may only work intermittently!

In a special edition of Scientific American dedicated robotics a few weeks ago, the leader of the PC revolution Bill Gates wrote a seven-page article predicting that the robotics industry is poised to take off in the same way that the computer industry did during the mid-1970s. PIC technology is the basis of robotic technology. We teach people how to program and use computer applications even though they don’t know how all the circuit boards inside work. I believe that as technologists we can teach students how to program PIC microprocessors even though they (or indeed ourselves!) might not know either.

Declan Askin
St. Geralds College
Castlebar

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