A meeting of minds

Roger Frost

Roger Frost visited a school where geographers and scientists work together to bring out the best in their subjects. They've done volcanoes four times this week." It was just a passing comment from a visiting schools inspector but it unsettled Priscilla Shaw, head of geography at Wycombe West School in Buckinghamshire.

As a physical geographer, she was already well aware of the overlaps between her subject and science. The comment started her thinking - and finding yet more problems: "For example, we'd be teaching the water cycle and science would be teaching the water cycle, but we'd be using different diagrams. For the children it was totally confusing - they would see them as two different things. So we felt that if we liaised more, it would make a lot more sense. And we'd stop wasting time repeating ourselves."

But this sort of co-ordination is time-consuming and heads of departments barely have space to draw breath. A breathing space did appear, however, for Wycombe West in early 1994. The local education authority asked schools to bid for a combined science and geography project. On offer was a programme of support and training to work on "weather", an area of common interest.

The schools would receive a computer and CD-ROM software. They would also receive an automatic weather station called the "Weather Reporter" which could measure temperature, light level, rainfall and wind speed over long periods of time. The project was funded by the Department for Education's GEST money (see box).

Ms Shaw and her science colleague Maggie McCrellan made their bids to the LEA and they and two other Buckinghamshire schools won. Included was training: a day each at the Met Officeand the Advisory Unit (developers of the Weather Reporter); plus training in computer skills.

The weather station was put to good use. Readings were routed to a geography room, displayed in the school concourse and sent to the maths department which used them for graph work. They received weather satellite pictures on the school fax machine via the Met Office's "Metfax" service. Putting the facts and faxes together, they tracked depressions and fronts and had a go at predicting the weather.

A season later, by the middle of 1994, weather was removed from the new science curriculum but the teachers continued to plan and co-ordinate. Geography would do the formation of rocks, while science followed with chemical erosion and weathering. Science would look at salt and how it can be extracted, while geography would do "the Cheshire plain and the chemical industry".

They also used the Microsoft Encarta encyclopaedia on a CD-ROM. It provided pictures for teaching materials and the children used it to search for information, for example on extracting salt. For once there were no complaints about not being able to "find things in the library" because the disc searches proved highly productive.

The teachers ran a combined day trip to Derbyshire. Under "geography" they looked at the limestone scenery, and under "science" they tested the rocks and acidity of local water. Ms McCrellan adds: "Things make much more sense like this. Now the pupils can leave the lab and look at science in the raw." She feels their co-operation is the way forward. "In the future there's going to be more and more general national vocational courses that emphasise just this sort of material - agriculture, environmental awareness, woodland management - where the overlap between subjects is great."

Ms McCrellan attributes some of the success to the timing of the GEST windfall: "When the call went out, we had ideas all ready to go. We'd been struggling for ages to write course materials, but this unlocked the door, it gave us outside encouragement and the time we needed to sit and plan things. "

Ms Shaw feels changes over the past few years in her subject have not helped build these links. "Geography has become a humanities subject and we have lost a lot of physical geographers who felt they'd lost a lot to science. It's understandable, but instead of saying 'That's not fair', I try to look at it much more positively - to see how much we can give to science and they can give to us."

* The Weather Reporter monitoring system: The Advisory Unit, Computers in Education, 126 Great North Road, Hatfield, Herts, AL9 5JZ. Telephone: 01707 266714.

GEST: How it works in practice

* Nearly Pounds 22 million was provided for computers in schools during 1994-95, under the Grants for Education, Support and Training scheme.

* More than Pounds 10 million was to support the use of computers in secondary schools. That year's allocation singled out science, geography, technology and mathematics for special attention. The rest of the grant went to primary schools, with Pounds 4.5 million for theCD-ROM in Schools project.

* GEST grants cover many aspects of education and are channelled through and topped-up by local education authorities. For 1994, many LEAs turned their information technology grants into curriculum development projects with a mix of hardware, software and support.

* The Department for Education guidance to LEAs was that funds be focused on a few schools. A school department might receive anything up to Pounds 10, 000, with extra funds for training. As a result, some departments were able to make a start with computers.

* In several LEAs the GEST allocation was more evenly distributed among schools. This is happening this year, when schools are receiving a variable "School Effectiveness Grant" which can be used more freely and notjust for computers.


* The third national primary geography conference on October 21 at University College, Bretton Hall, Wakefield, will consider the implications of the new curriculum Order. Speakers include Dr Bill Chambers from Liverpool Instituteof Higher Education. Fee: Pounds 25. Details: Helen Clark, tel 01924 832024.


The Royal College of Art Schools Technology Project is holding a conferenceon key stage 34 food technology in the national curriculum on October 14 atAston Business School, Aston University, Birmingham, fee Pounds 65. It will be led by schoools inspector Flo Hadley, deputy project director Louise Davies and teacher fellows from the project. There will be an opportunity to review the project's KS3 student books, teachers' resources and course guide published by Hodder Stoughton. Details: Maria Kyriacou, RCA Schools Technology Project,Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU, tel. 0171-584 2391.

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