When Thomas Swift (13) a Year 9 pupil left home for school, Eastlea Community College in Newham, on Thursday March 9 he had a lot on his mind:
"I had responsibilities on my shoulders - I knew if I gave the wrong information out later on lives could be lost." He was not the only person so burdened that day. Thomas and 20 other boys from his year, selected from the school's gifted and talented lists, were due to take on the rescue of the civilian population of the Caribbean island of Montserrat - faced with the twin perils of an imminent volcanic eruption and the arrival of a hurricane.
This scenario forms the basis of "Operation Montserrat" - a video conference cross-curricular simulation offered through The National Space Centre in Leicester. Cast in the role of members of a military response team, the students work in groups charged with different tasks. The Hurricane team has to monitor the speed and direction of their "hazard" and the Soufriere Volcano team, using information about rock fall and volcanic tremors are expected to assess the likelihood of an eruption. Meanwhile, the evacuation team spends its time poring over relief and population density maps of the island, puzzling out how to move people out of danger using whatever transport is available on the island. Finally, in direct contact with National Space Station education officer station Mike Shields aka "Commander Mike" via the VC link was Thomas -the communication officer aided and abetted by data officer Tony Nguyen (13). It is Tony's task both to receive and write up all the raw information coming from Leicester needed by the teams while typing up their calculations for Mike Shields to assess.
"The pupils had a crash training course over several hours," explains geography teacher James Mackay. "They researched volcanoes and hurricanes, got to know about the island and also practised some of the calculations they'll be carrying out today."
The initiative is being sponsored by the London Grid for Learning (LGfL).
"We are doing it principally as a means of showing off to our schools that they are now equipped with video-conferencing technology thanks to the web-based Click-To-Meet system with which we have a London-wide contract,"
explains LGfL curriculum consultant Mina Patel. "What once could only be done in City Learning Centres can now be done from the classroom. "
"This is authentic video-conferencing at its best," suggests Graham Pragnell Newham's head of ICT. "It is clear that due to the urgency of the job they face, the students quickly forget the strangeness of speaking to someone remotely and the session has a strong cross-curricular emphasis, combining geography, mathematics, science and citizenship with the softer skills of working in teams and encouraging students' language development.
And before they had a go - the National Space Centre's practice is to offer a teacher mission as preparation. This we did drawing 20 staff together from both primaries and secondaries which, for us, was a first too."
Meanwhile, the situation on Montserrat has worsened. Dust from the volcano has closed the island's airport. "After a rather frantic start, the room has hushed," points out James Mackay. "Look - there's no one here that is not deeply concentrating." Occasionally, the busy efficient atmosphere is broken as runners go out from each of the groups either with fresh data or to request further information from Commander Mike.
The evacuation team want to know if there are domestic animals that they could put to use - they have already approved people riding on the roofs of the buses to boost the removal of the capital Plymouth's population. "We are constantly plotting a graph representing the amount of seismic activity around the volcanic Soufriere hills," explains Reece Hopkins (14). "The shape is a good guide to when there might be an eruption - at the moment it's all up, up, up - so something's going to happen soon." In the event, it takes everyone a bit by surprise when Commander Mike confirms the eruption has occurred and that Plymouth is destroyed. Luckily, at that moment the confirmation comes from the other hazard team that the hurricane has fallen in speed and is on a course away from the island.
It is 12.45 - the last 90 minutes have passed in a blur and Commander Tim comes back with the news that the mission has been a complete success - no one has died and all are to be congratulated. The Eastlea students exchange cheers and handshakes. Afterwards Mike Shields feeds back on the mission.
"They did well, although the pressure of receiving data at the start threw them a little. The communication officer did a good job - often how they behave determines the level of calm or panic in the group as a whole. I was pleased with their imaginative thinking - the animals were a good idea.
Although the core of the mission is set down, the commanders can add or subtract details - some are more bloodthirsty and they add casualties to the mix. "
The students are clearly overjoyed with their achievement: "It was a new style of learning," says William Wai, "and a much more interesting one!", "I've learnt an enormous amount," adds Kofi Agyie-Kessie. "I am much more familiar with hurricanes and volcanoes and also the Island of Montserrat."
Music to the ears of James Mackay: "The pupils were having to apply a lot of maths in a geographical context - something that could be a real switch off under normal circumstances, but today they were gripped. And it was pleasing to hear technical language like exploding tephra and pyroclastic flow being banded about so casually. "
l Operation Montserrat costs pound;250 plus VAT. This includes a training session for staff ahead of the actual event.
National Space Centre education video-conferencing: www.nssc.co.ukeducationoutreach videoconferencing.htm
Tel: 0116 258 2111
Operation Montserrat emissionhq.com
LgflClick to Meet www.clicktomeet.comengsolutionsdlcs_londongrid_0204.pdf