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Layered look

Animal adventures, war-time stories, exploring space -the multimedia projects of pupils in a London borough have been put on a CD-Rom.

What has big grey ears?" "What has big grey ears and big grey feet?" "I have a really long long trunk." Is this a drama class? A wild playground game? No, it's a group of six and seven-year-olds in an infants' classroom working on the computer and their own multimedia production, "Going Wild With Animals".

Pupils in Year 2 of Queensbridge Infants School, Hackney, north-east London, are doing a project on animals. They draw pictures straight on to the computer. They write about where the animals live and what they eat, and write their own poems and read them into the computer microphone. They sing songs about animals and take photographs of each other pretending to be those animals - and they combine it all into an informative and amusing multimedia program created with HyperStudio software.

In devising a play, the amount of discussion and improvisation is reflected in the depth of the final performance, showing many minds creating a completed piece; the collaboration and deliberations that went into "Going Wild With Animals" gives the work a personality and humour with a strong group identity. Making the program interactive has made the pupils think about the audience they are writing for.

Funded by the Dalston City Partnership for the past two years in the form of hardware and an IT co-ordinator, eight primary and two secondary schools in Dalston have had the chance to make multimedia projects which have been put on to a CD-Rom called Reaching For The Stars: Multimedia by pupils in Dalston Schools. It was launched last month.

Across the borough in De Beauvoir School, Year 6 girls work on their "Wartime Women" project, focusing on the Second World War. They have interviewed Joan Miller, an ex-dinner lady and war evacuee, have read Anne Frank's diary, and have gathered notes about Odette Sansom, a British spy, before arranging it all into stories of the three women.

Joan's story is about her evacuation. The different aspects of living in a new town with new experiences are explored in words and pictures to a background of "We'll meet again, don't know whereI" which is interrupted by an animation of the Blitz with sounds of bombing as she returns to London.

Odette's story begins with a background screen of letters between Odette and the Government, while she discusses with her husband whether she should become a spy: "The children are so young," he says.

"But look at what the Germans are doing, I just can't stand by and watch them invade us."

Like theatre, where words, action, set and costume all combine to make the play, so the sound, text and graphics presented simultaneously on screen produce a coherent whole. They become a single unit which gives a richness more than the sum of its parts. It is this multilayered approach that took this project beyond paper and closer to the realms of performance.

The enthusiasm and energy that pupils and teachers put into these projects have borne fruit, not only in the extension of that aspect of their studies, but in winning awards in this year's National Educational Multimedia Awards run by the National Council for Educational Technology.

Down the road in St Monica's primary, pupils make their own search to see if there is life in Space. An animated rocket shoots into the air through the solar system, offering choices of planets to land on, including their own fantasy destinations. They draw the rings around Saturn using graphics tools, copying, pasting and altering the sizes. They find that Saturn is a light Planet that will float in water.

Other pupils assess the temperature of Mercury, comparing it to the heat of a cup of tea, a microwave oven, or a volcano. They consider animals and plants that could survive hot climates, before realising that Mercury could not sustain life.

Landing on different planets gives a wide variety of information and speculation about life before they finally return to Earth.

"Is There Life in Space?" is not a linear story. The planets do not have to be landed on. This non-linear, web-like structure needs early planning with detailed mapping on paper and arrows showing where each screen or area it will lead. Its flexible structure has liberated the pupils' creativity by removing linear constraints.

Is there multimedia life in Hackney? Definitely.

* The CD-Rom Reaching For The Stars for the Apple Mac costs Pounds 10 from Hackney Professional Development Centre, Queensbridge Building, Albion Drive, London E8 4ET. (Cheque payable to the London Borough of Hackney). Tel: 0171 923 4592

* HyperStudio for Mac, PC or Acorn, Pounds 99 for single user, 5-user Pounds 299.95 (Pounds 37 per extension) plus pp (ex VAT) from TAG Developments, 25 Pelham Road, Gravesend, Kent DA11 0HU. Tel: 01474 357350

Vivi Lachs is an advisory teacher in Hackney

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