When it comes to building dams, teachers are more competitive than pupils, says Polly Philpott at a demonstration of a new educational resource for primary and secondary teachers on the reintroduction of beavers to Britain, 400 years after they were hunted to extinction.
"Pupils ask lots of questions when we get them doing this," says the senior education officer for the Scottish Beaver Trial, during a dam- building activity towards the end of a session at the University of Glasgow's zoological museum.
"So do teachers, but when they're working in groups they really want their dam to be the best. It is hard to build a watertight dam with nothing but dead twigs. Beavers use mud too, but that gets messy in a classroom."
The Beaver Reintroduction Trial, begun in 2009, saw four family groups and a pair of beavers, captured for the purpose in Norway and released into one of the remotest parts of the country - Knapdale Forest in Argyll. The UK's first major mammal reintroduction scheme is monitoring the progress of these aquatic dam-builders - and the young that are born to them - until 2014, senior education officer Amy Cox explains to the teachers.
"Then the Scottish government will assess all the evidence . and decide whether to introduce more beavers to Scotland."
The teachers at today's session see the project as a great way to convey their love and knowledge of wildlife to pupils.
"I run a wildlife club at lunchtimes," says biology teacher Alexander Smith from Cathkin High, South Lanarkshire. "I've visited Knapdale several times. We heard the beavers splashing about among the trees, but it's not easy to see them. It was raining - they come out at dusk and so do the midges."
The trial partners - Scottish Wildlife Trust, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and the Forestry Commission - have put together a free pack of resources and started demonstrating these.
"We've delivered three sessions to pupils, as part of Glasgow Science Festival, as well as today's training for teachers," Miss Philpott says. "The festival organised the teachers and pupils to come to our sessions and they provided this venue. It's a fantastic partnership."
The resources, aimed at primary to upper secondary, can be downloaded from the Scottish Beaver Trial website. Teacher information, student activities and answer sheets are provided, and there is a "kids' zone" for younger learners. Activities range from selecting a site and writing newspaper reports to dam-building, designing habitats and debating the reintroduction of beavers, from the points of view of all the stakeholders.
"The beaver trial is a contentious issue and has been from the start," Miss Cox says. "There are arguments for and against. So it's a great topic for debate."
That same versatility is built into the other activities, nearly all of which can be used with learners of all ages. Relevant experiences and outcomes have been identified for all activities and every area of the curriculum, from expressive arts to social studies.
For Amanda McGarvey, principal teacher of biology at Holyrood Academy, the beaver activities are valuable in themselves and as a stimulus to other teaching ideas. "One of today's activities had us working through the features of a site you need to study to see if it's suitable - running water, vegetation, pH levels and so on. I'm thinking now I could devise similar group activities for a patch of land at our school, where we're planning to have a wild garden and dens for animals."
The quality of the resources, the relaxed yet stimulating style of the workshop, and the thinking and discussion time it gave the teachers all feature in their feedback to the presenters. The final question is about site access by schools.
"The location is about two hours' drive from Glasgow," Miss Philpott replies. "There's a short walk down to see the dam the beavers have built, and a longer one right around the loch. We will soon have a virtual tour on the website, so teachers can see in advance where to walk and what to look out for. It's a good idea to contact our educational ranger before you go."
- Beavers are vegetarian, never eat fish and live for up to 15 years.
- A beaver can move 10 times its own weight in a day.
- They were hunted to extinction in Britain for fur and scent, used in perfume.
- They are crepuscularnocturnal mammals; they emerge at dusk and work through the night.
- They dam rivers as a defence against predators and for access to food in winter; this creates wetlands that attract frogs, otters, ducks, fish and invertebrates, making beavers a "keystone species" - one that has a disproportionately large effect on an ecosystem.
- Beavers have many benefits but flooding from dams can cause problems for humans.