Roamer Podcast
Video Stories for the Educational Robot Roamer: a Valiant Technology Product

Inventa Circus of Imagination

Fleet Circus

An Inventa Project

This is not a Roamer or a robotic project. However, it does epitomises the constructivism teaching style that works best with Roamer. We got a call from Roamer enthusiast Trevor Thomson, head teacher of a small primary school in rural Lincolnshire. The Design Technology show invited Fleet School to show their work at the 1998 exhibition. His Year 6 Class (10 to 11 years old) would spend 3 days at the exhibition showing visitors the quality of their work. They had six weeks to put their display together. The children decided they wanted create circus full of automata. Right from the start their imagination outstripped their knowledge. Trevor didn’t know either, but he never let that stop him – he sought help. They had worked with us on Roamer projects in the past and now used our Inventa Design and Make product. Trevor called for our help. So began one of the most amazing, and for me inspiring and illuminating experiences.

The result of this project was sensational. So much so, the Chief Ofsted Inspector, Mike Ive (father of Sir Jonathan Ive – Apple’s Design genius) would travel the world, showing the videos below to everyone interested in Design Technology. This is an account of these events.

The Maker Movement

They did this project as part of the Design Technology curriculum. This is still a subject. Today, this particular project has much in common with the contemporary Maker Movement.

I wanted to excite everyone: children, teachers and parents. Design technology was ideal. It created a tremendous atmosphere. that raised the moral of the school, and with it student performance in every subject rose.

Trevor Thompson

Located in rural Lincolnshire, England, Fleet Primary School serves a farming community. Parents chose which school their children attend. In small British schools the head teacher (the principal) still teaches in the classroom. Trevor was not a technologist. He took on the role because nobody else wanted to do it.

My strengths lay in maths and English. I’ve a strong interest in science and a flair for art.

Trevor Thompson

The Fleet School Design Team.

Constructivism in Practice

At the time schools did Design Technology computer controlled projects by creating rides for a fairground. A Circus was an inspired theme. I said to Trevor that it was lucky the kids chose a topic with such rich potential. For me his response was a revelation.

You must let the kids choose the project. A circus had just visited the area. It wasn’t hard to get them to pick a circus theme. I thought it had great potential as a project.”

Trevor Thompson

More Constructivism Myths

Author Bruce Deitrik Price claims constructivists believe children learn facts like 2+3 equals 5 only if they construct “new” knowledge themselves. He accuses them of saying memorising facts does not count. This is not true. Constructivists believe memorising facts has limits. I usually show this by asking adults to answer 4 – (-3). This Grade 6 (Year 7) question disconcerts most adults. Many of those who get the right answer struggle to explain how they got it. A few reply with something like “two minuses make a plus” and so far out of the thousands of people I have asked, no one has explained this rote learning rule. This suggests people do not properly understand numbers or arithmetic operations. Knowing facts is not good enough. Understanding is essential and that is what constructivism helps achieve.

A myth about constructivism educational approaches is children choose what to study. Trevor showed they do, but only in the Dale Carnegie sense. A maxim from his famous book, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’, is the best way to get someone’s support, is to make them believe it was their idea. You can’t teach a curriculum and let students pick what to study. You need to get student buy-in. Trevor set things up so that the students would elect to do the circus. Latching on to student interests is a good idea. One of my teacher mentors recalled a hot summer when the ponds on Wimbledon Common dried up. A student found a Roman coin in the mud. It created such a buzz amongst his classmates the he decided to replan his lessons around the Romans. He still covered his learning objectives, but took full advantage of the student eagerness.

Some of this content connected to their history lessons. Their research was genuine and purposeful. They were finding things out because then needed and wanted to know. All of this engages the students in higher order thinking skills. A frequent criticism made of the constructionist approach is that knowledge has to precede critical thinking. However, critical thinking is about making judgements about facts. It is asking and answering questions: what do I need to know? Why do I need to know it? Does what I know make sense? Do I need to know more? Learning facts and critical thinking go together. Projects like this make these questions natural and authentic.


Getting Started

You may notice the names of the various circus acts show the pupil’s exploration of alliteration. Trevor was an expert at using the theme to deliver the curriculum. The children decided what acts to include in the circus. They debated moral issues, like animals in the circus. Straight away Trevor linked the project to art. Instead of writing a “brainstormed” list, students painted and displayed their ideas on the wall. Trevor constantly linked the project to other school work. For example, circus act names such as “Granny’s Great Leap” show student’s efforts at alliteration.

We live in a world where human knowledge increases exponentially. We’ve discovered more mathematics in the last century, than the previous five thousand years.

How do we teach in such a changing environment? Developing sustainable learning skills offers a solution. This means developing basic skills independent of knowledge content. The ability to research is one of those skills. Understanding design is another. A designer starts with a specification – what do I want to make, why do I want to make it, what problem does it solve? This stage involves research.

We found out about automata. A museum video was great. It showed a few circus acts. We decided to make the man doing handstands on a ladder,

Pupil, Sarah French

Granny’s Great Leap

The brainstorming session created a list unlimited by practicality. One idea stumped Trevor. The children wanted to make an acrobatic ensemble. One acrobat would jump from a strongman’s shoulders, onto a see-saw, propelling an acrobat at the other end of the see-saw through the air to do a handstand on the strongman’s shoulders.

Trevor had no idea how they could do this, but he knew a person who would know – me. So he called and asked for help. A four-bar linkage mechanism solves this problem. This is interesting. Four bar linkages are not on the Primary School Curriculum anywhere in the world. They are not on secondary school curriculum either. Yet, the student’s curiosity had led them to ask questions and need knowledge, beyond what society expects. At this point school usually suffocates our innate thirst for knowledge. “Our goal” is to get good test results. “Our approach is to stick rigidly to teaching what is in the curriculum”. “There is no time for interesting stuff”. I’ve heard it all. Though in teacher’s defence, this is the result of the “bean-counting” mentality of government and the extraordinary pressure it exerts on our educators.

Mr. Catlin showed us how to design a linkage system. We’d already done bisecting lines in maths. I liked using it to do the linkages.

Jack Glaser

The children making Granny’s Great Leap decided they should make the person who jumped from the strongman’s shoulders out of a heavy material. This made sure the see-saw moved. They chose Flymo clay. They had to mould and bake the figure. The boys making this automata had never used this material before, so they “subcontracted” the task to some girls who had. The cooperative learning was not just within teams, but between teams.

Juggling Joey

The student’s knew how to bisect lines, but they never had a use for it. Suddenly everything became authentic. Thrilled by their success with Granny’s Great Leap they wanted to design other 4 bar linkages. So they created Juggling Joey a mono cyclist. They simulated the juggling balls by computer controlling a flashing light sequence.


I’m happy for people to show children things beyond the normal experience. We shouldn’t limit them. First it increases their sense of possibility. Secondly it does rub off. Though they couldn’t design a 10 bar linkage, they did look for opportunities to use the idea. Holley and Kate got together with George and made Juggling Joey’s. His legs used one linkage system, his body movement another and the flicking hands another two.

Trevor Thompson

Bottle Balancing Bertie

Getting experts involved is normal industry practice. Trevor mimics that situation. However, he insists the students make the final decisions. Outside contributions is just advice. They’re the decision makers. As a direct result of his programme his students confidence has grown and they rejected ideas without hesitation. This design was another idea from the automata video. I suggested they could do it with winches. They decided to use pneumatics. This is a wonderful example of independent critical thinking.

Nick the Knife

In creating this blindfolded knife-thrower and his lovely assistant the internationally famous Barbie, the students their ingenuity and coding skills. They co-ordinated flashing lights, controlled a motor to turn anticlockwise then clockwise. This moved the knife arm making it appear to throw the knife (which disappeared behind a screen). The computer also drove another motor connected to a barrel fitted with a set of peg cams. The program synchronised this with the throwing arm so the cams tipped levers moving some knives through slots next to Barbie.

Tom’s Terrific Trapeze

A history lesson on the Victorian era inspired Tom’s Trapeze. When they looked at Victorian the technology they found the Zoetrope. They linked this knowledge to science: they studied light, how the eye worked and the notion of image retention. This also led them to find out how movies work.

The Human Cannon Ball

In the Human Cannon Ball project the pupils ran a few science experiments on missiles. They studied the idea of energy and its conservation. They used basic statistics to analyse the results and used the data in their design.

The Clown Car

The Clown Car was one of the most imaginative projects. It kept evolving.

We started with the radio control from my toy car. Everyone kept getting ideas. The best one was to use toy caps so they would bang and make smoke. But we ran out of time. I would like to have done that.

Jack Glaser

Disappearing Leonora

In the Victorian Magic Book, the kids discovered the secret of the disappearing woman. Though not strictly circus they could not resist the idea. The students solved a tricky problem by devising a sophisticated gearing. The programmed the computer to show the Leonora, closing the cabinet doors, spinning the cabinet round so you see there was nothing at the back – finally the doors opened and Leonora had gone. Magic!

Horse Back Rider

The design process guided the work. The group working on the Horse Riding Tricks specified they wanted make the design to look like a circus ring, but they did not want people to know how the rider jumped over the bar. They found a clear plastic. They decorated the lower parts so you could see the circus ring, but the ramp that lifted the rider, was invisible. Teachers who saw the design working at the exhibition had to look closely to see how they had done it.


I always set a simple task as an homework assignment. This guarantees parental involvement. Friends, neighbours all sorts of people help. Not only do people pass on knowledge to the kids, but it draws the community into the school.

Trevor Thompson

The Design Process

Currently, computational thinking is trending in world education. This is the notion that students would benefit if they learnt to think like computer scientists. Supporters of this idea believe the way computer scientists think about problems provides a way for solving any problem even when it has nothing to do with computing. When the students made Fleet Circus some educators believed if you applied the thinking of a designer you would find a solution.

By researching, getting a clear idea what they wanted to make and creating solutions the students followed the design process. Another part of this method is reviewing   Evaluation is another step. The Fleet children kept thinking about improvements. This reflects the critical thinking skill.

Next time I’ll make a pattern for the clothes. I think that’ll make it easier.

Kim Beakon

Evaluation is a vital part of the design process. It’s not just vital, it’s natural. What have we learnt? How could we do it better? You can certainly nurture student’s desire to improve. I found this attitude spilt over into all aspects of their school work.

Trevor Thompson

Transforming Attitudes

The atmosphere in the school was magical. These pupils did not head for the playground in the breaks. They went back to the classroom eager to work on more projects.

Suddenly we discovered Billy Smart’s Circus was about to set up on Clapham Common, near our London office. Even though the school was 150 miles away, Valiant sponsored a coach trip. The children wrote a wonderful business letter to the circus explaining the project and asking if they could visit for the day. The circus responded in magnificent style. They appointed a clown as tour guide. He was a teacher but literally ran away to join the circus

Reaping Benefits Across the Curriculum

The day at the circus was exciting and included opportunities for school work. The students interviewed the various circus acts about their lives and work. This became the subject of their English essays. Trevor kept picking out experiences that showed a principle and connected it to the formal curriculum.

… It was incredible to see how the girl balanced on a ladder, which was on the shoulders of a man. They threw a cup and saucer up in the air. She caught them on her head, without using her hands. We all clapped…

Extract from class essay Anne Horrel

Enthusiasm Spreads

After a while these fantastic models started to appear in the school. They started to excite and inspire the younger students. The other teachers took advantage of this.

Once you’ve started a big project all the school starts to get involved. It’s important to use that enthusiasm. There’s lots of opportunities for younger students to participate.

Trevor Thompson

We got the first years (Kindergarten) to do the Elephants. They had lots of interesting discussions about why the bigger wheels turned less than the smaller wheels.

Trevor Thompson

The younger students designed the Elephants Parade as a simple pull along toy. The simplicity still involved them with the design process and the safe use of basic tools.

Making students think about their experiences is an important part of this approach. Normally we introduce the connection between circumference and diameter of a circle with this strange, irrational number 3.1415. This task prompted the students to think about it in a different way.

The Exhibition

The exhibition displayed student work and work on projects live. Teachers could stop by and ask them questions. During the show they made one of their most imaginative designs- Custard Pie. Kids love design technology. Just look at George’s reaction to the pie hitting home.

This schematic shows how the custard pie works. As the blue lever moves, the gears turns the clown with the custard pie towards the “green” clown. At the same time the string attached to the lever moves around the pulleys and allows the “green” clown to duck. An ingenious adaptation of three simple machines: lever, gear and pulley.

Roll Up, Roll Up – It’s Circus Time

After the exhibition it was close to Christmas. They decided to put on a show for their parents. They set up a room to be the big top. Around the walls were displays of their non-Design Technology work and on the tables their automata. I loved the way they had used steamers to give the feel of a circus tent.

They could not resist adding new models like the high wire act. Another idea they found in the toy book. But also another idea that exposed them to physics, in this case gravity and balance. Of course it was not enough to simply show parents what they had done. Why do that when you could turn the event into a drama lesson.

Academic Performance

Of course in these days of high stakes testing many people say they do not have time for such projects. This misses the point. In the six years the school developed its design and technology programme its performance continuously rose. In 1998, 84% of the children achieved the expected standard in Maths and English. This compares with a National average of 69% and 65%. In science 94% of the students achieved the standard against the average of 69%. Parents choose which school their children attend. In 1990 when Trevor Thompson took over as head teacher, Fleet School had 83 students. When he left 10 years later that figure had doubled, a testimony to its growing reputation. The school went from obscurity to gain local then national recognition for its excellence. The children were not exceptional. In fact one student in the group had special needs statement for intellectual difficulties.


A remarkable teacher Trevor Thompson takes the credit for this wonderful project. It is an example of what education could be if good teachers have the freedom to exercise their passion and skills. Thanks also to Year 6, Fleet School, Lincolnshire, England, Class of 98. Now in their late twenties, this group of students remember this project as a highlight of their days at school.


Fleet Circus meets the needs of Design Technology curriculum. It shares the ideals of today’s Maker Movement. In the examples you will see bits, of wood, toilet roles, cardboard, discarded fabric – what the art world call found materials. The Design Technology idea aimed to get students to design and make products from these junk materials. Most of the Fleet designs involved computer control. Students coded control boxes. Today they would use Raspberry Pi, Arduino or similar.

A practicable difficulty doing this these projects is the difficulty in successfully making what children imagined. Trying to make gears, pulleys and the like work, needs skills and tools not available to schools. Inventa solves that problem. You do not design a project using Inventa, in the way you would design a Lego project. You design a project and use Inventa if it solves a problem.


This product is not in our main catalogue.  However, it is still available, please contact us for further information.

You have to log in to Comment.