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Floods of enthusiasm

A new centre at the University of London offers hands-on experience of geographical processes. Hilary Wilce reports

David Mitchell is lord of all he surveys. At a stroke he can summon downpours, precipitate floods and create tidal disasters. And geography pupils love it.

"Look at them," says Jodi John, who teaches geography at Hampstead School, in north London. "They're all so engaged. This is amazing."

The group of 20 or so Year 10s have travelled to the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury to spend the afternoon in the Earth Science Centre, where large-scale models allow them hands-on experience of how geographical processes work.

The centre is a large, bright room kitted out with four major pieces of equipment. There's a rainfall simulation model, which allows pupils to study the differing run-off from clay, sand, forest, and a built-up environment. There's a river model, which shows how meanders, flood plains and deltas form in a river valley. There's a small, eye-level wave tank where the effects of waves above and below the waterline can be studied; and there's a giant square tank which shows how waves erode and change coastlines.

Nothing is high-tech. The mechanics are primitive, landscapes are modelled from sand, and water flows are highlighted using a beaker of dye, or a cup of iron filings. When pupils examine the effects of erosion and deposition on human settlements, they place coloured wooden blocks, like overblown Monopoly houses, on the sandy cliffs or river banks, and when they are asked to try to figure out how to protect a vulnerable line of cliffs, they are given pieces of Perspex to act as groynes. But for David, a geography tutor at the Institute, that's the whole beauty of the centre: "I think we've forgotten the real value of using models like this."

The equipment was developed at the University of Warwick in the 1980s and moved to London in the 1990s, but has long needed refurbishment. A recent grant of pound;15,000 from the Science Learning Centre, London, has allowed the models to be repaired and spruced up, as well as opening up development possibilities.

"We're looking to improve our act. We're providing follow-up materials, doing more marketing, and looking at how to use the centre in the most creative way possible," says David. "After all, it's a really great opportunity for schools to be able to look at physical processes right in the centre of London."

The Hampstead School pupils appear to agree. After a brief introduction, where they look at photographs of flooding, and touch on issues such as pollution and global warming, things immediately become more practical.

There's no note-taking, and minimal data recording, because the two-hour session is all about pupils taking in the geographical processes which unfold before their eyes.

They clearly enjoy playing with the sand and water models, but pay attention to what they are being told and make accurate predictions about the effects of flooding and high tides. They talk about how run-off can be slowed by planting more trees, and watch what happens downstream when a river is interfered with higher up. Grouped around the coastal tank, they watch houses topple slowly into the sea as cliffs collapse.

"What's happening is that the waves are coming into the bottom and then there's nothing to support the top and it falls down," says 14-year-old Helen Skandalaki, watching a headland slump into the sea. "It's good," she says. "It explains it more, so you can really see how things happen. With textbooks you don't see it in the same way."

"We had a river model at school in Year 7 but it wasn't like this," says 15-year-old Humzah Shaikh. "We used a bucket. This is good. And it's practical."

Their teachers are clearly thrilled at the way quiet students are coming out of their shells, and argumentative ones are peacefully co-operating. A boy who is normally one of the most disruptive in lessons is enthusiastically volunteering answers. "We can explain the theory in class, but this is what they'll remember," says Jodi John.

The models can be easily adapted to suit different groups. The river can be remodelled into the Rhine or the Mississippi; rainfall can be a drizzle or a monsoon; and the wave tank can use rocks or gravel or sand. PCGE students can use the centre to try out teaching methods, and schools can use it as a precursor or a follow-up to fieldwork.

"And it's a really good resource for differentiation," says David. "It's good for A-level, where you can look at things like dynamic equilibrium, and for primary schools, where you can work on things like what happens when rainfall hits the ground."

Physical geography processes learned from a textbook, he says, can often be confusing and dry. "But here it becomes very vivid, it comes to life. You can see things happening in a matter of minutes that take hundreds or thousands of years in real life."

The centre has been hosting about 25 schools a year, but hopes to boost that to 40, as well as running sessions for other groups, such as primary school geography co-ordinators. It has a new website, and offers follow-up materials for teachers. Half-day sessions cost from about pound;100, which is cheap considering the mighty global forces that are played out in front of pupils' eyes.

More information: www.ioe.acuk

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