Earth-shaking animations

Jerome Monahan watches pupils film their models of volcanic eruptions

It is a brave teacher who combines modelling clay and young key stage 3 pupils. James Durran, an advanced skills teacher in media and English at Parkside Community College in Cambridge is courageous that way, though the promise of severe retribution attendant on any Plasticine abuse - particularly pelting - hang over the proceedings as he takes 30 Year 7s through a Friday of physical geography-focused clay-based animation.

"By the end of today," he explains, "you will, working in groups of three, have created one of 10 brief sequences illustrating an aspect of volcanoes." The children are gathered around the necessary number of laptops, each of which is hooked up to a webcam suspended above a white tray where the clay models will be made.

James invites the pupils to reflect on the ways in which volcanic eruptions are illustrated, using online sources including still photographs, cross-section diagrams and animations. The children say some diagrams are helpful, but they fall down when it comes to showing what is happening.

They find animations inadequate, mostly because they lack explanation or move too quickly.

The exercise generates some high level questions as pupils demand to know how such information is gathered. Subject-specific support is on hand thanks to PGCE geography student Alison Neale who explains ultra-soundings, probes and the geological analysis of dormant volcanoes. Next she points out the narrative they are going to illustrate, their films covering the difference between destructive and constructive boundary volcanoes, the shapes of shield and composite volcanoes and the formation of secondary vents, plugs and ash deposits.

James explains that they will need 15 frames to create a second of film.

The groups are invited to study the script and then time a reading of their bit of it, working out how many frames they will have to shoot.

Lauren and Sophie establish their three sentence contribution is going to need 285 frames. Using Stop Motion Pro software, James takes them through the basics, explaining the need to avoid knocking the webcam or filming their fingers manipulating the clay. Meanwhile the software's onion-skinning facility creates a "shadow" of the animation subject enabling shot movements to be planned and also ensuring accurate re-alignment should the camera be jogged.

The purpose of the day, says James, is to investigate the benefits of animation to explore a geological process: seeing whether the problem-solving needed to represent volcanic action results in higher-order thinking, greater engagement and a deeper embedding of knowledge than more conventional approaches might achieve. Expanding the use of film technologies beyond media and English is justified, he believes, not only by the subject-specific benefits but the high degree of motivation and enjoyment such work seems to generate among children.

Keith Grimwade, geography adviser for Cambridgeshire, agrees: "This is a really helpful approach. The children are getting a real sense of the processes over time that fashion the landscape. For example, plate tectonics is not an easy concept, but there's a group looking at destructive plates who told me how hard it was to slide one layer of Plasticine under another. Their comment went to the heart of the matter, it is just such stickiness and friction that is the cause of earthquakes and volcanoes at these points.

"The other great thing is that the children know they are creating films that will have a real audience. Research has long established how motivating children find it when their work is likely to have a broader reception beyond their teachers."

When the animations are completed, individuals from each group record their piece of the script later to be edited to run alongside the animations. "I enjoyed all of it," says Harvey, (12). "It was such a surprise compared to normal lessons."

* Parkside Community College che.e2bn.nete2bnleasc99schoolschemedia_college.htm

* Stop Motion Pro 5 www.stopmotionpro.comindex.htm

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