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The new baywatch

From the bottom of the ocean, to the barrier reefs of Belize, Jonathan Croall follows the progress of the Gulbenkian prize-winning Jason Project.

Robert Ballard is the oceanographer who discovered The Titanic. It was while he was watching those historic pictures of the doomed liner being beamed back to him in the privacy of his own office that he thought "Why only me ?".

The result was the pioneering Jason project, which he created in order to show young people that science and technology could be exciting and dramatic. Over the past five years, using the most up-to-date technology, the project has enabled 750,000 students at 25 sites in the United States and Canada not only to watch and follow major scientific expeditions in "real time", but to become actively involved in them.

The National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside (NMGM) introduced the project into the UK in 1993. This year their association with Jason has won them the award for the "most imaginative education work" in the 1994 Gulbenkian Awards for Museums and Galleries, which were presented yesterday at the National Portrait Gallery by Lord Gowrie, chairman of the Arts Council.

The judges praised the NMGM for what they called "a very imaginative and innovative project". In the same category they also commended highly the education work of the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park in Clwyd, the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, and the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery.

The Jason project was partly inspired by the 16,000 letters Robert Ballard received from young people after the Titanic pictures hit the headlines, all asking how they could get involved in his kind of work. He was also concerned to do something to halt the alarming drop-out rate from school science in the States, and to change the image of science as a career for men in white coats doing boring back room jobs.

There's certainly nothing at all dry or dusty about the Jason project. "It's really like a global Nintendo," says Phil Phillips, a project officer at NMGM. This year it centred on an expedition to Belize in Central America, set up to look at various aspects of the country's eco-system through an exploration of the rainforests, the coral reefs and subterranean limestone caves.

During one fortnight of the spring term students from some 120 schools in and around Merseyside, both primary and secondary, came in to the Maritime Museum in Liverpool. Here, on three large screens and via live satellite links, they were able to follow the progress of the expedition as it was happening.

But they weren't there just to sit back and watch. The state-of-the-art technology used in the project meant that students were able to question the scientists as they worked, and have a dialogue with them as their own picture was slotted into the corner of the screen.

More exciting still, some were given a chance to control on-site cameras, that could roam above the canopy of the rainforest, or zoom in to look in detail at the diversity of insect life. Others were able to drive a remote-controlled mini-submarine under the waters of the coral reef, using nothing but a joystick and a pair of headphones.

Watching tapes of this year's shows at the museum, you understand how thrillingly immediate the Jason expedition must seem to these young "tele-nauts". One boy, briefly in charge of manoeuvring the submarine through the emerald waters, asked the nearby driver if there were any sharks around.

"That boy's from one of the more disadvantaged areas of Liverpool," says Phil Phillips. "For him it's a different world, something that's quite outside his normal aspirations. But it's real people, doing real science, and making real discoveries: that's what makes the project valid."

The project has a further participatory element. Every year up to 20 students, chosen through an essay competition, take part in the expedition, working alongside the scientists. Two students and one teacher are selected from the UK entry.

Belize is the fifth Jason expedition. Previous ones have involved marine archaeology in the Mediterranean and the Great Lakes, wildlife in the Galapagos Islands, and whales and underwater energy in the Sea of Cortez, off California. Next year the NMGM will be taking telenauts to Hawaii, where the Jason Project is engaged in studying volcanic activity on the island. The project will also compare the earth's beginning, evolution and global systems with other planets, especially the stony planets Mercury, Venus and Mars.

The UK end of the project is being sponsored for three years by Barclays Life. This has enabled additional sites in London, Nottingham, Southampton and Suffolk to hook into next year's trip, from February 27-March 11. Because of the time difference, the one-hour shows are timetabled between 3 and 10pm.

To help teachers who are bringing school groups, the NMGM run one-day preparation courses. They also provide a document which suggests potential links between the project and several areas of the national curriculum.

Further details from NMGM on 051-207 0001. Details of the Gulbenkian Awards from the Museums Association on 071-250 1836.

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