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The "MERITE" project - giving technology the place it deserves

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At all levels of education, technical skills and technology have been in decline and of little interest for students. The Mines Nantes is addressing this issue. The school is mobilizing itself and its partners, in the "MERITE" project, to get pupils in primary and secondary education interested in experiments and practical work, in particular by the use of special 'learning boxes' which get them solving practical problems. Special training for secondary school teachers has also been put in place.

Is teaching technology in primary and secondary school under threat ? And could its decline have an effect on the education system as a whole, even in higher education? At Mines Nantes, which has a tradition of keeping up to speed with new developments in teaching and the dissemination of sciences and techniques, we are convinced that this is the case, and we are worried. "What children are being taught is moving further and further from the real world. Yet contact with the material world is essential for learning and gaining self confidence. This gradual disappearance is making children lose their curiosity", highlighted Anne Beauval, director of Mines Nantes.

"We are convinced that the study and putting into practice of technological concepts and techniques is a way to get the pupils interested again, added Carl Rauch, lecturer at the school, specialised in teaching methods for science and technology. At the moment, practical work is becoming less frequent in both primary and secondary education. Nowadays young people have access to so many sophisticated devices (screens, tablettes, simulation software…) that their role is reduced to that of users, where they seem to be very confident (more confident than many adults), but ignorant of the underlying concepts. Even engineering students are struggling more with the technology. In order to learn, they need to understand basic concepts of mechanics and electricity. The onset of digitalization has distracted them from such learning, because they are living in an increasingly virtual world."

The Mines Nantes decided to attack the problem. First by promoting the process of investigation and adopting a project-based approach in its programmes, at the same time supporting its implementation from primary school onwards. "After that, we decided to go further, and put forward a new way of teaching, as well as providing teacher training", explained Lotfi Lakehal-Ayat, coordinator of scientific support for the inquiry-based science project  La main à la pâte at Mines Nantes.

A new project called "MERITE", incorporating a five-year action plan, follows this same logic. First and foremost the project will focus on technological culture : primary and secondary school classes will be provided with boxes containing simple equipment designed to enable them to discover technological concepts and basic technological knowledge through experimentation. For example : How do you extract metal from ore ? How do you make detergent ? How do you make a structure rigid and light ? How do machines communicate with each other ? "The students proceed by trial and error, explains Lotfi Lakehal-Ayat : starting with a question or challenge, they do an experiment, observe the results, try and improve their approach, share their observations, and talk it through... that way they understand the concepts through handling the objects. The teacher guides them through their discoveries, and as a group, helps them to structure their findings and what they have learnt. " This approach allows them to make progress over seven one-hour sessions. There are a number of different themes available (ten), the objective being to provide fifty boxes for each theme, in the academies.

 

Making a lasting impression

 

The second part of the "MERITE" project, concerns industrial culture, and is aimed at secondary school teachers. There will be four-day training courses, including visits to companies. The objective ? To help them understand company practices, such as collaborative work and innovation, by giving them the tools and training methods, also based on inquiry- based learning, but for adults this time.

The "MERITE" project is fully in line with the La main à la pâte programme, launched by Georges Charpak in 1996, and which centres on inductive and active learning. Mines Nantes works with a number of academic partners, grouped together : Centrale Nantes, the Ecole de chimie de Rennes, the Ecole supérieure du bois, the Ecole supérieure d’agriculture d’Angers, the IRT Jules Verne, Télécom Bretagne, the Université de Nantes,… They have since been joined by the regional educational authorities of Loire-Atlantique and Brittany as well as regional authorities, diocesan boards of education in the private educational sector, and the Higher education teacher training establishment (ESPE),  for pedagogy. Together they are working first at regional level, before working further afield, on a larger scale, to address this issue which is of national interest.

The question of finance remains. The partners in the "MERITE" project forecast a total budget of 2.5 millions euros, half of which will come from the Investments for the future programme. For the rest, there are ongoing discussions with the Pays de la Loire regional authority, the ERDF (European Regional Development Fund), industrial companies and other partners – not forgetting the participation of the establishments themselves.

"Our ambition is not to turn primary and secondary school teaching on its head, but to give pupils real life experience, and to get to grips with some basic concepts, explained Carl Rauch. With ten of these sessions troughout the year, it is possible to have a lasting effect, and encourage children to become interested in science, give them confidence, and the pleasure of creating and innovating." This is a major challenge, because current developments in education, in particular the increasing importance of digital technology and virtual learning environments, plus the gradual decline in practical training, go a long way in explaining the fact that young people today are not interested in technology and certain scientific disciplines. This trend is reflected in their career choices. At the end of the day this has undoubtedly played a part in the decline of industry in France.

 

When primary school children go to engineering school

Mines Nantes is organising its second 'technological challenge' on the 4th June  aimed at primary school children.

On the 4th of June, 242 primary school children from the Nantes area will be coming to Mines Nantes for the second edition of its "technological challenge". The aim : give very young students the chance to learn about technology and to help them learn new skills through the process of investigation. Throughout the day, they will be working on a defined project, with the help of students from Mines Nantes who are involved in science education activities (the inquiry-based science "main à la pâte" programme, and science workshops in hospitals for example).

The first edition of the "technological challenge" was held on June 2014, and was attended by nearly 200 children from four different primary schools who worked together in small groups on the design of a vehicle capable of moving as far as possible, and made from basic materials (paper, cardboard, bottle tops...). It gave them the chance to discover new concepts – how to build a vehicle that can move, that can go in a straight line, and finally that can go further – all this through experimenting. The whole operation generated a lot of enthusiasm in the children, which is why we are holding it again this year. The idea is also that teachers should be able to get together and exchange ideas, and talk to lecturers, in order to think about teaching methods, and bring in inquiry-based learning. The "technological challenge", has been organised within the framework of teacher training for primary and secondary school teachers, and set up by the Experimantal Physics Resource Centre (CRPE) at Mines Nantes, along the same lines as the "MERITE" project.

 

The event is also funded by the Mines Nantes endowment funds whereby the priority is to get young children interested in science. This is one of the key issues in the campaign to get funding for 2014-2019. « The donations collected for  « supporting the children » will be allocated to the different projects that the school is involved in, including the technological challenge » explained Catherine de Charette, Head of Endowment Funds. Foremost among the patrons is Dominique Louis, CEO of Assystem, Endowment Fund ambassador – and sponsor of the class of 2013. Particularly concerned by the promotion of science and technologies for young people (see), Dominique Louis has committed more than  100,000 euros to a variety of projects involved in the promotion of science and technology among children. "Developing and controlling technological solutions will be key issues for society in future decades : adapting to climate change, diminishing resources, competitivity … according to the CEO of Assystem. They will be the key to success for France in the future. Such  technological and industrial capability needs to be put in place now, by getting children interested in science. That is why Assystem is backing this project. We want to play a part in building up the growth of tomorrow with innovative technologies, as well as investing in skills and training." That way Assystem plays a part in promoting these actions to other businesses and people. Hopefully this will serve to inspire other donations...

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