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Science tracks the giant

Northern Ireland offers the diverse ecosystems required for a successful A-level biology field trip.

As well as some glorious scenery and fabulous legends. Nicola Avutaga reports

The Emerald Isle is well known for fabulous scenery, but our group from Bramcote College in Nottingham were headed for the north, a country where "The Troubles" still mould most of our preconceptions.

Once in the minibus and on the road to Londonderry, our preconceptions became misconceptions. Green, unspoilt valleys bordered by dramatic escarpments flashed by, giving way to long, golden, Blue-Flag beaches interspersed with jagged rocks and basalt columns as we reached the coast.

We were in awe of the unexpectedly beautiful countryside.

Over the next four days, 14 students and two teachers on an A-level biology field trip, carried out sampling of four different habitats: freshwater along the River Roe, woodland at Breen Oak Wood, rocky shore at Portrush and sand dunes at Magilligan and Benone. Students spent the evenings analysing and evaluating the data.

The AQA Module 5 Environment, Inheritance and Ecosystems, covers classification, biology of ecosystems, ecological terms, investigating numbers and distribution, diversity, succession, ecological pyramids, human activity, deforestation and sustainability. We introduced these topics during the trip, and the students also learned sampling skills, and how to analyse and evaluate data.

In addition to their field work, the students went on a tour of the Loughs Agency, the conservation body for local marine resources and fisheries, met education officers from the Forestry Service and the National Trust, and visited the Giant's Causeway.

At a time when the content of the syllabus is heavier than ever, why go on a field trip? At Bramcote College, Year 12 students start the A2 course just after their exams - invaluable extra time if we are to cover the syllabus. However, it is the end of the academic year and we wanted to bring in a refreshing teaching approach to focus them. We also needed to attract students to study biology. A field course offers a method of study that not all colleges can provide - so it is a selling point.

When I searched the internet for a suitable location for the trip, the Magilligan Field Centre in Limavady immediately stood out. It was a chance to go to a different country, at the same time as studying the local environment and native UK species. And we could fly from East Midlands Airport to Belfast for just pound;25 return - less than a coach fare to Skegness.

The field centre is situated on the north west coast, 10 miles north of Londonderry. It is funded by the Western Education and Library Board (WELB), which subsidises the cost for students, making it excellent value for money. Students sleep in dorms, and teachers have their own room.

The centre provides all the specialist equipment needed, including wet-weather gear, safety helmets and walking boots. The courses are led by highly qualified staff, all of whom hold mountain skills qualifications and advanced first aid skills.

From initial contact with the Magilligan Field Centre in January, its staff went beyond the call of duty, ensuring that everything was perfect: students were even asked to provide suggestions for meals to be included in the weeks' menu. The food, all home-made, was excellent, and the lemon meringue pie caused a stampede.

The whole week was a great success and provided plenty of data, which we were then able to continue to explore in the following weeks back at school. The students thoroughly enjoyed the experience and I just can't wait to go back.

Magilligan Field Centre, Limavady, Londonderry. Tel: 028 777 5 0693; email:; www.welbni.orgcurriculumcassmagilligancentre.htm

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