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Culture-shock therapy

An expedition in unfamiliar territory can be an invigorating way to tackle geography and biology fieldwork, writes Anthony Rogers.

Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College has been organising expeditions for students for many years and has found these activities bring considerable benefits to the students and the college as a whole. Regular destinations include the Cevennes National Park in the south-east of the Massif Central in France and the high Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where we do biology and geography fieldwork.

We recently began a cycle of community-based trips to India, co-ordinated by our college staff and Shikhar, an Indian rural development charity. The students raise funds for, and build, a toilet block and washing facilities for women at Shikhar's community education centre.

Each trip also has a clear curriculum focus involving art and textiles research. Students draw, make photographic and video records, collect artefacts and go on industrial placements in a factory which uses a 600-year-old textile process to make blankets.

They are creating an archive of art and textile materials which can be used by the college and loaned to other schools. This meets one of the conditions of the British Youth Council's millennium youth expedition award, which is for travellers to bring something back which benefits their own community.

The archive will certainly help a local primary school with its planned art week. We hope to extend this to other primaries in the area. The students also have contacts with local galleries and hope to mount an exhibition of textiles at the next Brighton Festival.

In general, we aim to take students on expedition to rural places because of the contrast with urban Brighton. Once you take away the distractions of shops, bars and nightclubs, you are able to focus minds on work far more easily.

Students appreciate all the hard work that goes into planning an expedition and respond accordingly, taking the opportunity to travel to places they would not normally be able to reach until they are a little older and more independent.

When fieldwork is being planned, there needs to be a clear understanding of what students will gain fom the activities. Our staff pool their experience by keeping records of what works and what doesn't.

For the experience to be worthwhile, students have to be used to working as a team and this doesn't happen the first time they try it. So we prepare by increasing the amount of group work in lessons beforehand. This pays off when they find themselves working in some of the more testing conditions of remote regions, where cultural differences or extreme weather can often make things difficult.

We hold special orientation meetings for those students going to India, which involve discussions, activities and reading sessions. Even this was not enough to prepare one group for the antics of a porter who though it was a great laugh to chase them with the eyeballs of a freshly-slaughtered sheep or to encourage them to take a dip in a glacial lake at 14,000 feet.

Living in England, we might think we are well used to the vagaries of the weather but our comfortable lives largely elimates any real need to prepare for extremes. This year, for instance, one of our groups in the Cevennes encountered searing temperatures and brilliant sunshine. The following week, temperatures plummeted, recording the coldest July since 1947. It even snowed. Working in such conditions are especially challenging and if there is one person left holding the clipboard, you will not just get blue fingers but probably inaccurate records as well.

Flexibility is always vital for a successful expedition, especially when the circumstances make work difficult. For the group leader, it is sometimes wiser to reconsider your objectives rather than to soldier on regardless.

Unfamiliar work in a strange setting is always tiring but it can also be tremendously invigorating if managed properly. Our students enjoy these trips and work very hard. They surprise themselves with the volume of hours they put in but they never lose enthusiasm.

Each year, I always end up saying to someone: "Stop work, you can finish that another time." But we always make sure there is plenty of time added on for rest and play.

Anthony Rogers is head of geography, leisure and tourism at Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth Form College

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