Steering a narrow boat is not as easy as it looks, even at the sedentary-sounding two miles per hour that the pupils from St Charles' Primary, Glasgow, are moving along the Forth and Clyde Canal on a wet day in May. So there are a few bumps with the bank which raise a laugh from the P7s, who otherwise are taking the expedition very seriously.
Split into four groups, the youngsters study the banks for wildlife, take turns with the tiller, hear about the history of the canal and examine a lively collection of water minibeasts, caught this morning and kept in a glass tank on the cabin-floor table.
Snails, skaters, shrimps, mites, damselfly larvae and beetles of all kinds are crawling, swimming, wriggling, running or huddling quietly in a corner, hoping not to be noticed. A large horse leech and a great diving beetle larva, which will eat anything that moves, have been segregated from the rest. Some of the boys are keen to see the voracious predator in action or get the leech to suck blood, but the volunteer experts are having none of it.
"The larva will change into this handsome chap," says Ruth Llewelyn, chair of Glasgow Scottish Wildlife Trust, showing them a photo of a large black beetle. "And you could safely paddle in a pond full of leeches like this. They do not eat blood. Medicinal leeches that do are rare in Scotland now. They were over-collected in the 19th century for doctors, so they are now a protected species."
This trip on the Gypsy Princess is part of a wider educational agenda at St Charles', says teacher Ann MacCormack. "We were an eco-school first and that was great. Now we're thinking of global citizenship, which is about looking after the world, our own environment and ourselves. It brings in sustainability and biodiversity. The children come here with a lot of prior knowledge."
Bright birdsong from the bushes catches Mrs Llewelyn's interest. "That is a sedge warbler," she tells the pupils. "It is a streaky, sparrow-sized bird that comes from Africa for the summer. Look ahead, that patch of yellow is marsh marigolds, one of the first flowers of spring. The bumble- bees really appreciate them."
As the Gypsy Princess motors through tall, green rushes overlooked by tenement buildings at Firhill basin, a mute swan on her nest drifts into view, almost close enough to touch. Suddenly anxious, she rears up, ready to protect her eggs, then settles down again as the boat and its respectful occupants drift gently past.
"We talk to these older pupils about rights and responsibilities," says Mrs MacCormack. "We will do group work back at school and ask questions about what they've seen today. We will talk about peer pressure. It can be difficult to do the right thing when friends throw rubbish in the canal, the children tell us.
"You build up and lead on to conversations about their own lives. All that is more effective when it is connected to things they have seen - like that mother swan. They will try harder now they have got their own thoughts, feelings and memories about the canal and its wildlife."
This morning's expedition is part of an annual educational initiative by three organisations, with volunteers from several others. British Waterways Scotland developed the teacher and pupil packs that contain colour guides to everything that might be seen on the trip from Speir's Wharf to Maryhill Locks. The focus this morning is on wildlife, while history and heritage take centre stage for another group of pupils in the afternoon.
The packs are interpreted for the children, and enhanced with their own knowledge, by members of The Waterways Trust Scotland and the Forth amp; Clyde Canal Society, which also owns the boat. "You each have sheets of photos of the canal's animals, birds, flowers and underwater wildlife," the society's Alison Payne tells the pupils. "Put a tick against anything you spot.
"British Waterways, which owns and operates this canal, does a wildlife survey each year, and your sightings will become part of that. A few years ago, Glasgow got the best results - maybe because of the contribution of schoolchildren like you."
Roe deer, foxes, mute swans, mallards and moorhen are the most common sightings, she says. "There is often a wee fox sitting on the bank just around this corner. Look, there's a heron."
Children on the canal trips come from schools within a couple of miles of the canal, says Ms Payne. "But many never knew it was here. Even the teachers are surprised. `I have lived in Glasgow all my life,' they tell us. `I always thought the canal was just a dirty place where people threw their rubbish.' But it is lovely, isn't it?"
Wildlife and heritage canal boat trips are organised for Glasgow schools each summer. For more information on canal opportunities for schools, contact Steven Cole: T 0141 354 7757; M 07795 315434; E email@example.com
FORTH AND CLYDE FACTS
The Forth and Clyde Canal opened in 1790, when Agnes, a fisheries sloop, was the first ship to sail from ocean to ocean.
The last commercial craft to use the canal were fishing boats in the 1950s.
The Forth and Clyde Canal Society was formed in 1980 to campaign for its re-opening.
Twenty-one years later, on 27 May, 2001, it achieved its aim, and a flotilla, led by a giant ornamental goldfish, sailed along the canal.