When Year 9 students at Penrice Community College arrived in the science lab for a lesson on biodiversity, they were surprised to be greeted by their modern languages teacher, Dawn Lochore. And when Dawn began her introduction, the pupils at the Cornish school were even more amazed to realise that the entire lesson was going to be conducted in German. "Some looked horrified," says Dawn. "But by the end of the session, everyone was happily making a contribution, and there was a real sense of achievement."
The lesson was part of a project done with the help of Science Across the World (SAW), an award-winning initiative which encourages students around the globe to exchange ideas on scientific issues that affect their everyday lives.
For today's hard-pressed languages departments, the scheme can deliver rich rewards. Its focus is the SAW website, which provides teaching and learning resources and a channel for finding and working with partner schools.
Teachers select one of 16 topics - choices range from renewable energy to keeping healthy, and most materials are aimed at 14 to 17-year-olds.
Students conduct research and agree a class-wide consensus on their findings, going on to swap views and ideas with partner schools via exchange forms sent to the website. Some schools also link up for video-conferenced discussions. The scheme is managed by the Association for Science Education.
Resources are available in at least six languages - some topics are offered in as many as 18 - and there is a growing fund of advice on using the material to support language learning. And teachers have much to gain by joining forces with other departments on collaborative exercises, which not only extend the reach of languages but can also boost learners' skills and motivation.
At Penrice, a language college, Dawn Lochore was enlisted to the biodiversity project by science teacher Jacquie Ashton, who is also the college's international links co-ordinator. The two worked together to plan how to incorporate an aspect of language learning, and it was agreed that after the students had done their field research on flora and fauna, Dawn would take three science lessons in German, helping pupils express their opinions.
Dawn, who recently moved to take up a post at Treviglas Community College in Newquay, says: "Everyone in the group had at least some German. I introduced some useful basic nouns, then asked students to use extended German to explain their findings - why, for example, did they believe the local pond was polluted?"
She says that once they had recovered from the initial shock they rose to the challenge. "They were really motivated, because they were using the language in the context of something that interested them. There is a big problem with motivation in languages, because they are usually seen as discrete subjects, and never taken and used in another department. I always encourage students to consult dictionaries, but sometimes they never venture beyond the words I have given them in the lesson. But because they felt strongly about issues like pollution, they were willing to go that bit further to find the words that could express their views."
The students went on to incorporate their German work in one section of the exchange form - the rest was completed in English - and swapped findings with the Borg school in Ried, upper Austria, which was working in German.
Jacquie Ashton, who has been collaborating for three years on SAW with her languages colleagues at Penrice, says: "Although the students might have difficulty translating all of a partner school's work, it is always very motivating for them to discover that even if students are writing in their own language, they don't always do it perfectly. It encourages them just to have a go, and not worry about being perfect."
She has also used biodiversity with Year 10, with the language focus on preparing a presentation in French, delivered live to an audience of visiting teachers from around Europe. When students were asked how useful it was in helping them with their French, almost half awarded the exercise five marks out of five, the others giving four.
Language education consultant Keith Kelly has used SAW in schools in Buenos Aires and Beijing, and is now an adviser to the project. He says: "With languages becoming optional at key stage 4, and other subject areas being encouraged to create cross-curricular links, it makes sense to get involved in a project like this and get more language into classrooms, reaching teenagers who might otherwise miss out.
"Some teachers might feel intimidated by the science label, but once they get inside, they can see it is really about intercultural exchange on global issues. It provides a focus for exchange exercises, and a great way of incorporating ICT into languages, which is not always easy. Students use the website, and they can employ spreadsheets, presentation software and word processing to prepare their findings. It's not essential to have video conferencing - in fact, some African schools send wonderful material by post."
Science Across the World was recently named as one of the winners of this year's European Award for Languages. Run by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, and backed by the European Commission, the award recognises innovation and effective practice in language learning.
Keith Kelly says: "The ball is now starting to roll, and I hope we see language champions in science departments coming forward and saying to their language colleagues: 'Have you ever thought of doing something like this?'"
* Science Across the World: www.scienceacross.org
Association for Science Education: www.ase.org.uk
European Awards for Languages: www.cilt.org.ukeal