Environmentalists used to be seen as sandal-wearing vegans with little understanding of the "real world", whatever that is. But in the past few years the media has begun to treat them with more respect. Ethical investment and sustainability have become fashionable watchwords as companies such as The Body Shop have gained credibility and even financial reward from proclaiming their greenness.
Stories in the media reflect the new perspective: legislation over mink farms; conflicts between environmentalists and construction companies at places like Twyford Down and Manchester Airport; anxiety over toxic waste and landfill sites; drought warnings and hosepipe bans.
But if environmental issues are news, they still haven't quite made it on to the curriculum in their own right. Nevertheless, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is keen to change all that. It may have a cuddly panda for its logo but this is a professional outfit that uses the new media to educate the public and get its message across.
Its CD-Rom, Tiger Data Bulletin, has been designed for the 13-16 age range. Not just relevant to science and biology classes, it can also be used in English to explore values, attitudes and prejudices and to help pupils learn to see other people's point of view and argue a case. They need to take into account the differing perspectives of villagers living near tiger habitats, the practitioners of traditional medicine, people who work in forestry in Asia, governments of countries where tigers live and international conservation organisations. It's all a far cry from seeing the tiger as a great big pussy cat.
Similarly, Exploring Coasts is aimed at the primary market and provides a stimulating alternative to all those topics about the seaside. Using photographs, maps and up-to-date figures, pupils can see why our coastline is under threat and look at the impact of tourism on the landscape and the local economy, as well as ways of making life better for the people, birds, animals, fish and plants that have made the coastline their home.
Possibly the most exciting venture undertaken by the WWF is the Brent Spar Data Bulletin. This contains the arguments presented by both Shell UK and Greenpeace about the decommissioning of the Brent Spar oil storage buoy. The whole question of oil pollution obviously generates strong feelings. This package provides supporting evidence in the form of reports, letters, press releases, on-line information and photographs.
Users can explore bias in the media, look at the art of the headline writer or design electronic mail. This would make the perfect resource for A-level general studies as it can be used to support many different curriculum areas in a way that will stimulate and challenge students from a range of disciplines.
The Data Bulletins are exciting resources because they offer a range of viewpoints to help students investigate issues and make up their own minds.
The material can all be exported into a word processor or spreadsheet. There are really good teachers' guides to show how topics can be used by students "to develop and apply their IT capability in curriculum subjects such as maths (data handling), science, English and geography or for GNVQs and post-16 core skills".
As well as the Data Bulletins, WWF also produces SATCOM. This is like being in charge of your very own communications satellite. There is an introductory module as well as materials on water and forests. They give pupils the chance to compare prevailing conditions in different parts of the world and to home in on areas they are particularly interested in.
The Forests module features a number of hotspots, including the Amazon, Siberia, Malaysia and Germany and covers the energy crisis, international trade, threats to indigenous people and recycling. There are about 50 suggested activities to get pupils started, so there's plenty to do.
Phil Taylor, head of IT at Hampstead School, north London, sees SATCOM, as a useful general research tool for science and geography projects. "You can zoom in from space into someone's living room and our pupils enjoyed finding out about the shanty towns in Lima and then cross referencing the information with issues of homelessness on their own doorstep," he says.
It seems that this medium can also motivate less confident readers. "Some of the language isn't immediately accessible but it is graphical as well and this gives them a way in. They get more out of a text if they have been taken in via a stimulating path."
Dr Andrew Martin teaches science at the City of Bristol College. Some of his students have taken part in the scholarship scheme organised by the NCVQ (National Council for Vocational Qualifications), the WWF and a firm called Tioxide Europe.
He liked the fact that students could draw information from the databases but found that many wanted to print off everything, which did not do much for the planet's resources or the college's supply of paper!
He felt that the most useful part of the project was using the conference facilities so they could discuss ideas with on-line experts and make meaningful, relevant use of IT at the same time.
The WWF Internet Web site gives details and prices of educational materials as well as news for volunteers and information about current campaigns such as The Great Shark Swim.
There is also a link to the gift shop so you can do your Christmas shopping while planning your lessons. The WWF really does understand about using the new media to help teachers.
* Web site http:www.wwf-uk. orghome.shtmlu WWF UK, Panda House, Weyside Park, Godalming, Surrey GU7 1XR