Shell's oil refineries and terminals, and the landscape around them, have become an educational resource. Five Shell centres - at Buncefield near Hemel Hempstead, Stanlow in Cheshire, Jarrow near Newcastle, Shell Haven in Essex, and Plymouth - are open to pupils in groups of up to 15 for day trips. This is thanks to an imaginative Shell UK IndustrySchool Links programme designed by a small environmental company, Industrial Environment Management (IEM).
Project co-ordinator Robert Farr explains: "Six years ago my father, Gordon Farr, was a civil construction contractor to Shell UK throughout England. As a keen entomologist and naturalist, he grasped the opportunity of making use of a piece of wasteland within the boundaries of the Hemel Hempstead terminal. With the use of large earth-moving machinery and an expertise in wildlife, he created a substantial pond which helped lure a diverse range of plant and animal life."
From those beginnings grew the concept of using the nature reserve for education. Thus the links programme was born. The original nature reserve is now under a road but a smaller patch has been landscaped with pond, path and a host of plants and trees protected behind a fence in the shadow of the huge oil tanks and pipes.
Farr has fine-tuned the visits to suit the national curriculum within two cross-curricula themes: industrial awareness and environmental education. A morning session is based on lessons in oil, usually within the terminal's offices.
Here, with the help of posters, bottles containing oil in its different guises, and models (including one which illustrates the collection of vapour from lorries), pupils learn about the origins of oil, how it is found, extracted, refined and how it is adapted to uses from petrol to plastic.
Topics include solids, liquids and gases, vapour displacement, static electricity and "the fire triangle".
The afternoon session - with a natural history lesson bearing towards geography and science - uses the landscape. Posters and other literature assist in teaching life cycles, food chains, and habitats. To add to the diversity, IEM has built up a collection of creatures - from museum drawers of native butterflies to live exotic insects. The most popular is a large Kenyan millipede, which can be safely handled.
There is work to take back to school: usually a maths-based project where, given a fixed budget, a class is asked to imagine a sterile site and how it might become a nature reserve. How much would it cost to dig up concrete, plant trees, create a pond, and lay a path? Farr also suggests another exercise - to design an oil terminal of the future.
In 1996, about 1,000 pupils went to Shell's terminals through the IEM scheme. Most are from primary schools, including Horndon on the Hill primary - near the oil terminal at Shell Haven near Tilbury, Essex, on the Thames estuary.
A comprehensive school - Hele's School in Plympton - took 30 pupils aged 11 and 12 to visit Shell's Plymouth site over two days (following in the footsteps of a previous group). Jane Haskell, chemistry teacher, says: "Robert Farr came to the school to discuss how the visits would fit in with our curriculum. " She found his enthusiastic approach produced "a huge impact on the youngsters". The result was that back in the classroom they designed a nature reserve on a budget - for real. Cash is being found to implement the viable suggestions within the school grounds.
The problem is that demand is likely to outstrip the potential for visits to Shell. "It's first come, first served," says Farr. Free material is available through Shell's education programme on oil and on the environment and its relationship with industrial sites during the "waiting" period.
Interest is also spreading through Shell's staff. "I have just seen a tree creeper," said an oil specialist as we toured Buncefield, where a ringed plover and pied wagtail were two species to breed here last summer. "I am astonished at the level of goodwill from the staff," Mr Farr adds. That sometimes requires a change of attitude. One traditional worker at Jarrow was dismissive of the educational element, until he saw the results.
Not all-comers are welcome. Too many ducks arrived at Buncefield. "We had to trap them and remove them to a duck sanctuary," says Farr, as a moor hen flits across the water and into the reeds.
Details from Robert Farr, Industrial Environment Management, The Mill, 1 Old Road, Linslade, Leighton Buzzard, Beds. LU7 7RB. Tel: 01525 372562 Ann Hills died on December 31, 1996