It's a windy autumn day on Stonehaven beach, 15 miles south of Aberdeen. An enthusiastic band of schoolchildren pick their way among the rock pools, searching for seaweed, shells and other clues as to the history and nature of the ancient north-east seashore. Soon, they'll measure the wind speed and temperature, carefully recording all their data in worksheets designed for the purpose.
Many miles across the sea, to the north-east and south-east, other children - their new European partners - are engaged in a similar exercise, but their beaches, in Norway and Majorca, yield different results.
Later this term, four schools - Aberdeen's Carden school for primary-age children with emotional and behavioural problems and the city's Redcraigs school for secondary-age children with similar difficulties, Majorca's Colegio Publico Antonia Alzina, a mainstream primary, and Norway's Ludsvagen Naturskole, another secondary for children with emotional and behavioural problems - plan to share and compare their findings via the latest communications technology. With access to the Internet and to video-conferencing facilities, this exciting partnership has enormous potential for enhancing their learning experiences and fostering pupil and teacher friendships across the European community.
Support for the project and its possibilities lies in yet another direction, approximately 100-200 miles east of the children, in the central North Sea, the operations heartland of Shell Expro's Central Business Unit (CBU). Both offshore and "on the beach", at the company's Aberdeen office, dozens of CBU staff have an active interest in the activities of Carden school.
The CBU's health, safety and environment team leader, Alex Penalver, explains: "As part of our company's commitment to sustainable development within the community, the CBU has spent the past 14 months building a strong, supportive relationship with the school. It came about after the business unit achieved an excellent health, safety and environment performance across all its installations in the central North Sea, and we celebrated by committing to support a local school.
"Following discussions with the local authority, we selected Carden school, which had not previously received a great deal of support from local industry."
Sponsorship is not a new phenomenon, of course, but Mr Penalver insists the CBU's relationship with the school reaches beyond the traditional concept.
"This isn't about providing a one-off package and moving on to the next good cause. We see our relationship with Carden as being long-term and sustainable, involving a lot of personal commitment in terms of time and knowledge-sharing on the part of our staff volunteers."
The relationship began with a gift of playtime equipment for the children, support in developing a website, and a lively away-day for the school's four classes, at an outdoor activity centre, for which more than 70 CBU staff volunteered.
"We were delighted at the amount of interest shown by staff at all levels, including our integrated services contractor, Brown amp; Root, but of course everyone couldn't be there," says health, safety and environment adviser Leslie Stewart, whose work role now officially includes ongoing liaison with Carden school.
"We've had two further outings since then, and again, the staff take-up was tremendous. People want to do what they can to support the school in developing the children's self-esteem and motivation, socially and educationally."
The beach monitoring project has povided an excellent opportunity to combine both. Funded by the Comenius part of the Socrates programme for pan-European initiatives, the two-year Beachwatch project engages schools in monitoring pollution and studying the coastal environment of a chosen beach, and in sharing their data and experiences with participants from other countries.
Carden and Redcraigs schools and their Norwegian and Majorcan partners had already started laying the groundwork, but support from Shell Expro's CBU boosted the possibilities well beyond their original goals.
"Assistance from Shell Expro has enabled us to communicate with our partner schools via the Internet in ways which would not have happened otherwise," says Carden's acting assistant headteacher, Cate Watson.
Two members of staff from the CBU's information technology support service ODL, Ronnie McConachie and Douglas Miller, who worked with Carden ICT co-ordinator Isabel Alexander and the children to develop their lively school website, are also helping the partners to develop a methodology for recording their beach monitoring data, both on hard copy worksheets and on a dedicated Beachwatch website.
The methodology follows 5-14 environmental study guidelines and the colourful site will eventually encompass all three beach locations, under assignment headings: A Rocky Shore, A Sandy Shore, Sea and Beach, and Weather and Tide. This will allow the project participants, as well as any other interested party, to share learning at the click of a computer mouse.
Photographs, locator maps and data (automatically adjusted to the user's own language) will help to build a greater understanding of each other's environments, and questions and answers will be relayed via e-mail.
"Generally, most of our work is for the oil and gas industry, so it's been really interesting to do something completely different, especially for a school of this kind," says Mr Miller.
The project is also giving the Shell Expro staff an insight into the education system, both at home and abroad. Mr Miller, Mr Stewart and representatives from all the participating schools met up in Majorca in April to discuss methodology and further strengthen their links. They celebrated their partnership by planting an orange tree and now plan to reconvene in Aberdeen and Stavanger in Norway before the end of the year.
In the meantime, a video conference is being planned, so that the children can meet each other remotely and exchange information. Again, Shell Expro's technical experience and facilities will be called into play, support which the CBU staff are only too happy to provide.
"Our business unit holds a monthly forum for everyone to get together socially to discuss issues and share experiences. Leslie's 'stall' - featuring regular updates on Carden school, photographs and drawings and letters from the children - is always busy, with people constantly asking how and when they can help out," says Mr Penalver.
"On a personal basis, I would say I've had some pretty significant achievements in my career over the years, but the thing I've felt best about is getting involved with Carden school." he adds.
There is no doubt that Ms Watson and her colleagues and pupils value the school's relationship with the people behind the oil giant.
"The children are being given the opportunity to use new technology, meet different kinds of people and have new experiences, which they normally wouldn't have access to. This is having a very positive impact on their personal and social development," she concludes.
Carden school website: http:atschool.eduweb.co.ukcardenhouseBeachwatch: www.beach-watch.co.uk