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Harvest time for learning;Science in the curriculum;Edinburgh International Science Festival

Pupils in rural authorities are gaining knowledge from their local farming environment. Judy Mackie finds out how

Weighing piglets, sifting grain and climbing on to a tractor may sound like some of the fun highlights of an activities week out in the country. But for a group of Standard grade science pupils at Alford Academy, in Aberdeenshire, these activities are part of the formal curriculum.

Conducted in what is to these pupils a familiar farm environment, they are part of a series of scientific experiments demonstrating such principles as energy loss, photosynthesis and the properties of materials.

And to the 26 pupils involved (at grades 5-6 Foundation level), they are the key to understanding a subject they might otherwise dismiss as too difficult or not very relevant to their own experience.

Eyes that would normally glaze over at the sight of a dissected geranium leaf, light up with interest as their teacher burns a wheat grain and a whole wheat plant outdoors to demonstrate the difference in mass and energy produced by photosynthesis.

Youngsters used to feeding livestock before leaving for school find it easier to get to grips with the concept of energy loss in food chains by seeing it in the context of weighing pigs and their feed over a period of time, and recording the outcome.

Those familiar with farm machinery suddenly see it in a different light, in terms of its individual material components and their various functions.

The innovative and highly-successful approach of relating general science to agriculture`in a bid to engage the interest of Foundation level pupils from a farming background, is Alford Academy's interpretation of the Investing In Young People initiative (formerly Compact).

Funded locally by Aberdeenshire Council and Grampian Education Business Partnership, the programme aims to encourage youngsters deemed unlikely to achieve five Standard grades at levels 1, 2 or 3, to develop skills which will give them better career opportunities. It supports both primary and secondary schools in enhancing the curriculum to suit the particular needs of their pupils.

As one of 10 Aberdeenshire schools to secure funding from the programme last summer, Alford Academy has chosen to harvest the range of resources available in its rural location by linking up with local farms, Dubston and Harthill, to develop outdoor study opportunities and associated teaching materials.

Dubston farmer William Lawson and Harthill farm manager David Ellis have been extremely accommodating, giving up their time for preparatory meetings with teachers and carrying out demonstrations of a variety of agricultural processes, ranging from crop production and the calculation of inputs and outputs, to the use of farm chemicals such as herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and antibiotics, and the health, safety and environmental issues involved.

But as Alford's principal teacher of biology, David Martindale, explains, these have not been limited solely to science: "This is very much a developing cross-curricular initiative, which at the moment involves science, mathematics and English.

"In maths, for example, data gathering is being taught in relation to the milk quotas at Harthill Farm, and in English, the pupils are reading Babe and discussing how aspects of the book relate to the real-life experiences of the pigs on Dubston farm."

Martindale, who hails from a farming background, has been responsible for producing the teaching materials as part of the school's cross-curricular Investing In Young People team, and is also involved in organising the farm visits and carrying out some of the on-site teaching.

"The whole idea is to captivate the interest of those pupils disaffected with the traditional curriculum by making it directly relevant to them and their life experiences.

"Hopefully, it will also encourage those thinking of a career in agriculture and agriculturally-related industries to develop the skills they will need to make that happen," he says.

As the school's programme develops, other subjects, including home economics and technical, may also be brought in. As well as liaising with the local farming community.

Alford Academy is working with the area's further education colleges, Grampian Careers and the local authority's community education department to develop units and modules relevant to the local and national farming and agricultural industry, which will help future employers to understand the secondary curriculum and Higher Still developments.

Vaughan Jennings, Aberdeenshire's education officer with responsibility for the Investing In Young People initiative, is impressed with the school's achievements so far.

"It's an excellent idea, which fits in very well with the overall aims of our programme. We are currently inviting applications for the next round of funding and hope many more schools will see it as an opportunity to develop their own ways of enhancing the curriculum for pupils within the specified category," he says.

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