Damage from oil spills at sea can range from minor to environmentally disastrous. Three factors make the difference: the weather, the condition of the ship and the actions of the people who try to minimise the spill. All this remains true in a Learning and Teaching Scotland exercise.
At St Helen's Primary in Cumbernauld, North Lanarkshire, the senior pupils have just discovered, after a week of battling to save the beleaguered town of Seaport, that their worst fears have been realised. A huge oil slick, from a tanker that caught fire, drifted on to the rocks and was holed below the waterline, has been driven on to the sandy beaches of the little resort.
Despite the best efforts of the pupils - playing the roles of local residents, ship's captains, emergency services, oilmen, environmentalists and media representatives - 40,000 seabirds could die and the town, which is reliant on fishing and tourism, may never fully recover.
None of the pupils, supervised by the school's information and communications technology expert, Marie McLean, seems too downcast at this turn of events. They are engrossed in searching the Internet for ways to clean oiled seabirds and getting advice by e-mail from real experts - coastguards, environmentalists and oil men - as they immerse themselves thoroughly in the roles they have adopted.
The group playing the tanker's captain are most displeased by a rumour that the accident happened because he was drunk. Attempts to trace the source of this baseless slander on a man with an unblemished record are inconclusive, though the finger of suspicion points at the press, a tightly focused group expertly composing words and pictures for tomorrow's first edition.
These pupils, who barely knew each other at first, have surprised themselves by working extremely well together. Their varied personalities and talents - in generating ideas, interviewing, writing, photography and artwork- have meshed most effectively as they tackle the demanding tasks they set themselves.
"Usually when we get a project," says young Scott, "it's just copying off the blackboard for about 20 years and we get told everything we have to do. But this time we talked it over and decided what we'd do ourselves. We get to walk around, interview people and gather information. It's kind of a drama but it feels real."
Jane is also enjoying the process but for her the product is especially pleasing. "We got the chance to work on a newspaper and we've never done anything like that before. It's fun and it looks good. It makes you feel proud of yourself."
Elsewhere group dynamics seem more strained. At a meeting of the emergency services, tension is running high.
Not far away, the local residents are confronting stony-faced spokesmen of the oil company across a wide table and a wider gulf of aims and interests. The multinational's first offer of compensation was derisory, a fact they are now regretting as the council leader puts the town's case with considerable force. As the Daily Flash's report on yesterday's public meeting points out, this is not the first time the tough oilmen have been taken to task. "Laura Egan shouted out: 'I think you should get down to the beach and get your hands dirty.' " Virtual Oil Spill is the latest online learning project for primary classes funded by the National Grid for Learning, devised by LT Scotland and implemented by Bell Learning (formerly Dynamic Distance Learning), following their successful collaboration on The Versailles Experience about the Treaty of Versailles, launched last year. These are hosted on Pioneer, the structured web environment created by LT Scotland which schools can download free from the Internet.
Further online projects that are planned, says LT Scotland, include Worlds Away, which will immerse pupils in space science and technology as they train to become astronauts, and All About Rubbish, which will focus on humans' impact on the world.
The appeal of this type of project, says Ms MacLean, is that it provides a richly-textured framework that stimulates individual and group research and lets pupils follow learning paths suggested by the material and their imaginations.
"They are controlling their own learning, taking responsibility and not just chucking stuff off the Internet. They're reading it, assessing it, judging it and extracting what they think is valid.
"As well as gaining a great deal of knowledge and understanding, the pupils are developing informed attitudes, which is one of the key threads in the new environmental studies guidelines. They're learning to discuss and debate, to see things from others' points of view.
"If I was doing the project again I'd maybe like to spread it over a term rather than just two weeks. But I think it's been great and so do the children."
Virtual Oil Spill, for seven to 11-year-olds, with bulletins that track the developing disaster, suggested activities, teacher's notes and links to other websites, see www.ddluk.com