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In gear for Dutch doubles

Roger Crawford discovers how pupils in Yorkshire are using e-mail and the Internet to work on a project about bicycles with their counterparts in the Netherlands, while, right, Mike Aston examines how IT fits into the Netherlands' complex education system.

When it happened, I was talking to a colleague about the Internet. I was telling her about gophers, Veronica, e-mail, World Wide Web and Mosaic. It wasn't the first time it had happened. Talk computer jargon to the wrong person and you'll see it in your companion's glazed expression. They're there but not with you. I call it techno-faze and it's a sure sign you're talking techno-babble. In serious cases, colleagues fall into the deepest techno-faze as you approach.

Out of concern for my colleague, I spoke the one word that will rouse any teacher from the deepest techno-faze - curriculum. She sat bolt upright. "Really," she said in surprise, "you can actually use all this gibberish to make the curriculum more relevant and exciting?" "Well, yes, you can," I replied. "Primary school pupils in Batley and Liversedge, West Yorkshire, and Enschede, in Holland, are using it. More precisely, they're sending e-mail via the Internet so that they can communicate directly while working on the same project about bicycles."

"Hmm," she said disparagingly, "you mean that primary schools in Yorkshire and Holland are doing a joint curriculum project about bicycles which involves looking at cross-cultural comparisons, environmental issues, economic and industrial understanding, the interdependence of local geography, culture and industry, and so on?" I felt very small and had to agree. That was what I meant but, as usual, I'd put my fascination with the technology before its real purpose.

The European Primary Science and Technology Project, or "the bicycle project" as it is commonly known, has grown out of a curriculum package on the bicycle, developed with Ciba-Geigy and funded by West Yorkshire Science and Technology Regional Organisation. Training in its use for local primary school teachers took place at the University of Huddersfield and was partially funded by Kirklees and Calderdale TEC.

So far the project has involved primary school children, their teachers, and higher education lecturers in initial teacher training. The "bicycle" has been the theme of a series of technology fun days in March for all Batley primary school pupils and there have been joint exhibitions at the schools of education at Hogeschool Edith Stein and the University of Huddersfield. The project is to be extended to include teacher trainees, and the organisational structures put in place for this project will be used to develop future collaborative work.

The Ciba-Geigy curriculum package on the bicycle can be used independently. Individual primary schools can use it as a focus for curriculum studies in science and technology.

Independent studies could cover the construction and manufacture of a bicycle, gears, levers, friction and braking, the use of appropriate materials, clothing and road safety issues. However, communication between primary schools in different parts of Europe simultaneously using this curriculum package adds a dimension which is usually impractical.

The towns of Batley, Liversedge and Enschede have similar industrial histories based on textiles and light engineering. However, the land surrounding Enschede is flat, while around Batley and Liversedge it is hilly. Consequently, most students cycle to school in Enschede and all road transport planning recognises cycling as an important mode of transport. This cannot be said of road transport planning in Batley and Liversedge.

Discovering and exploring the reasons for these similarities and differences, and their consequences gives primary school pupils in Batley and Liversedge a comparative, European perspective on social development. It also makes their work much more interesting.

All those involved in the bicycle project use e-mail, delivered via the Internet, to exchange information. They are connected to the Internet in various ways.

Mill Lane primary school and 15 other Batley primary schools connect to the Internet via Kirklees Host; Millbridge primary school in Liversedge connects via Campus 2000; the University of Huddersfield connects via the Janet network, while the Hogeschool Edith Stein School of Education acts as an Internet host for the primary schools in Enschede.

More important than the use of e-mail via the Internet is the fact that the project facilitates inter-cultural exchanges and understanding. Without the Internet the context of the bicycle project is local; with the Internet the context is European and, ultimately, international.

The project also serves to remind those of us who work with and are fascinated by information technology that it has no real purpose in itself.

Its function is to service other meaningful human activities, one of which is education, and its success is measured by its usefulness.

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