Last term Year 10 pupils at Marriott Secondary School in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, conducted a survey of holiday habits in the school as part of their geography work. A questionnaire was sent to everyone in the year asking, for example: How many holidays do you have a year? How long was your main holiday in l995? What was the destination?
The data was fed into a computer and using a data-handling program each student created his or her own charts, choosing the most appropriate chart style and discussing the merits of each type. They illustrated, for example, the most popular types of accommodation. General data about holidays was incorporated to show, for instance, how the number of people going abroad had increased dramatically since the Fifties and how air transport had become the favoured means of travel. The survey produced some stylish pieces of work.
Other projects included one on the sphere of influence of Hitchin, in which charts were created to illustrate where people came from for leisure shopping. It showed how people travelled from further away and in greater numbers on Tuesday, market day. There has also been an investigation into the distribution of shops in the area, showing patterns and clusters of different types.
The work illustrates well the enormous contribution which the data-handling capabilities of computers can make to geography. It was initiated by Maggie Hutchison, then head of geography and IT co-ordinator, who five years ago was seconded to The Advisory Unit for Computers in Education in Hatfield to work on geography applications for Aegis, a program produced by the unit which will display any spatial data. This sort of work is now a mainstay of geography in the school and also contributes to the data-handling aspect of IT.
With data handling and spreadsheet programs such as Aegis, Pinpoint (Longman) and Excel (Microsoft), pupils can manipulate information ranging from local school surveys to world economic data showing with great clarity, for example, aspects of the North-South divide.
When they conduct a survey, pupils can input Ordnance Survey digital maps and incorporate their own data on to these. They can create their own files and then merge them to give access to everyone's file. Using all this information they can then create their own charts and analyses.
The school also has a weather data collecting station on the roof which records temperature, wind-chill factor, humidity etc. Using a data-handling program or spreadsheet they can work out the mean temperature, the total rainfall or show on which days maximum temperature was higher than a chosen figure. They tackle tasks including finding out how often the roads need gritting or when is the best time to have off.
"Geography is enquiry-based so we are much involved in handling data," says Maggie Hutchison. "The computer gave pupils access to enormous amounts of data and provided them with the means to handle it effectively."
These are words which are echoed by Helen Warner, inspector for IT in the London borough of Tower Hamlets and project officer of the Geography IT Support Project - a joint venture between the National Council for Educational Technology and the Geographical Association.
Funded by the Department for Education and Employment as part of the Curriculum IT Support initiative, the project aims to encourage the use of IT to enhance and enrich geography teaching and learning in secondary schools.
"A lot of geography teachers are turning to IT more readily than other subjects," says Helen Warner. She is concerned, however, that momentum might be lost. "Keeping the ball rolling requires targeted funding for up-to-date materials and for in-service training." But the CITS initiative is set to end in March, and with GEST funding for geography no longer available, it looks as though there will be neither central funding nor targeted funding from then on.
Helen Warner is also aware of the need to develop work in primary schools, "but at present there is no funding". Even so many primary schools are doing imaginative work: schools like Cofton primary school in Birmingham which created its own CD-Rom for geography. Children "drew" pictures of their own houses on to a local map and by clicking on these icons could access information on their houses and localities and Llanfihangel y Creuddyn School in Aberystwyth which has exchanged weather data with an Australian school among many e-mail projects.
But most of the work has focused on key stages 3 and 4 and at this level during its short life the Geography IT Support project has been exceedingly busy.
A major contribution since its beginning last year has been a series of four booklets with accompanying sample data-files which schools can use them as well as collect their own local data.
"Our approach has not been to look at specific software written for geography, but to start from what is good geography. We conclude that good geography involves enquiry and that needs good data. That's what we have supplied, " says Helen Warner. "The packs give teachers good quality specific worked examples and sample files in order to get things moving."
The applications are of the sort which schools like Marriott are already using successfully, but which many have yet to discover. "The situation is patchy, " says Helen Warner.
Titles are Shopping and Traffic, which has several activities involving decision-making, for example a project on improving traffic flow linked to simple modelling; Investigating Aspects of Human Geography, which looks at global development and links between population and resources in India and at the North-South divide in Italy; Investigating Weather Data; and 14 case studies of geography in IT - a copy of this has gone to every school in England; the other publications are available from the NCET.
The emphasis now is on encouraging teachers to use the material: an INSET pack for LEAs has been produced called Geography IT Support Project INSET Pack and shortly to come are packs for schools and initial teacher training. The project has been evaluated by two Leeds University evaluators who unreservedly praised the teachers' materials and the INSET pack.
An Internet site is also being set up to give teachers quick access to a range of geography sites which the project is evaluating according to a five star system - "ranging from 'don't bother' to 'don't miss'", says Helen Warner.
They have also begun to look at CD-Roms and a selection will be available for LEAs or universities to book and show to teachers and lecturers. Called the CD-Rom Road Show, this service will probably continue for two years.
"IT can add value to what is good geography," says Helen Warner, "but it's got to come from good geography."
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