What’s it like to come into a university environment as a fourteen year old to collaborate on a public artwork? Fifteen third year students from Inverkeithing High School have come along to Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) to find out.

Together with Concrete Scotland and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh (RBGE), the two institutions are working on a series of decorative concrete panels on the theme of urban biodiversity. Designed by the students, and cast in our workshops, the panels are destined for the new Edinburgh Gateway Interchange, which connects the Edinburgh to Fife railway line with the tram network.

A hands-on understanding of what university life is like

The project is part of a wider initiative by Network Rail and its contractor, Balfour Beatty, to involve local schools, organisations and communities in the development of the interchange.

This was the second such workshop at ECA; the first was with learners from Queensferry Community High School.

While the focus is on the new public artwork, the process has brought young people together with specialists in design, construction and biodiversity to learn more about sustainable ways of using concrete and building responsibly in the landscape.

Holly Russell, a teacher at Inverkeithing High School, sees the project as a great way of learning about employability and skills for work, saying “What this has enabled the (young people) to do is have direct contact with professionals and a hands-on understanding of what university life is like, how ideas turn into something tangible.

I’ve learned so much, I can only imagine what these young, sponge-like minds have managed to take from it. The requirement to listen and think, not just about what they’re doing now, but about the future… it’s incredibly valuable”.

Working as a team

Under the direction of Professor Remo Pedreschi, ECA students and researchers have been exploring the use of fabric in concrete formwork for a number of years, demonstrating that it is possible to use concrete creatively and sustainably.

Talking us through us his designs, based on flora near his home, one of the school students remarked “I never knew concrete was so different and interesting. If you use it correctly, you can make thousands of different combinations of patterns and textures”.

Asked about his experience of the university environment, he said “I think I could adapt to it. It’s kind of like your own little community, your own little town. I like it”.

Another of the designers, who was working with a partner to reproduce the school crest in concrete, said she enjoyed “working as a team and trying to figure out, together, how to get to a final design”.

Adding an extra experience to the learning journey

Guiding the visitors through the use of fabric formwork, and helping them choose and manipulate different fabrics, was a team of current and former ECA and School of Engineering students.

Four were involved in today’s workshop (Ella Bayne, Hedda Bjordal, Eleni-Ira Panourgia and Charlie Patterson), and more have been involved in the project as a whole, including Material Practice students, Katerina Alkiviadou and Lewis Lilburn.

Sculptor, and Art PhD candidate, Eleni-Ira, describes her involvement as adding an “extra experience” to her own understanding of materials and techniques because “to discuss it with the children, you need to discuss it with yourself first, and then you get to revise your knowledge and achieve a more profound understanding of the subject. It was fun… [working through] how they can realise their ideas from a thought, to paper, to formwork, to casting”.

As part of the Edinburgh Gateway project, ECA is also contributing a major sculptural concrete artwork to a new landscaped garden at the interchange. The project is currently under construction.