Idly watching the river flow by usually results in chastisement, but schoolchildren are now being encouraged to do just that, writes Douglas Blane
Most of us would have a hard time trying to justify sitting at a window watching the river flow past, but for marine scientist George Farrow it's all in a day's work.
"Last week a gas cylinder floated past," he says, "and a cable drum, 12 footballs, more than 100 plastic bottles and a tree trunk 60 feet long."
But there is a limit to what one pair of eyes, no matter how scientifically skilled, can do. So another 1,500 - young and keen - are about to be enlisted as 50 Scottish schools take part in a major educational project known as Clydewatch.
Shaped like an inverted "U", the River Clyde rises in the Lowther Hills, flows north to the Falls of Clyde - admired by Wordsworth and leapt on horseback by William Wallace - past angular old cranes and the shapely shell of the new science centre, and finally empties into the Firth of Clyde, which extends southward for 50 miles between the coasts of Arran and Ayrshire. Children from all over this catchment area will participate in the project and, despite its name, Clydewatch will encompass more than just the river, and lessons and investigations will demand more than just good eyesight.
Children will observe, record and analyse the environment around their schools, using thermometers, rain gauges, cloud-charts and pH meters. They will employ the Global Positioning System to find their exact latitude and longitude, allowing NASA to send them an overhead photograph of their school from space. And they will post the data they have gathered on the web, join-ing an international community of scientists, educators and schoolchildren called GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment), which currently comprises 10,000 schools in 95 countries.
Clydewatch co-ordinator, Jill Knowles, is no stranger to water-crafted landscapes, having grown up in a region of Ontario, Canada, called Kawartha - a Canadian Indian name meaning "Land of the Shining Water". The countryside there reminds her of Perthshire, she says, and before, during and after her degree course in environmental science at St Andrews University, she worked in Kawartha and Scotland on a variety of environ-mental projects with children.
"One of the main aims of Clydewatch," she says, "is to help children gain a better feeling for environmental science and to realise they can go out and do it themselves - even if it's something as simple as noticing when the bud on the tree in their front grden bursts into leaf."
Clydewatch is a long-term project with more than a dozen local partners in addition to GLOBE and NASA - including the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Wildlife Trust and Scottish Natural Heritage. Activities and support materials, aimed initially at upper primary and lower secondary schoolchildren, will be developed to embrace a range of environmental interests and age groups. Already a scheme has been set up to promote awareness of river ecology by hatching trout and salmon in the classroom and releasing them into the wild.
A pilot project in selected schools last year demonstrated the educational value of Clydewatch, as well as highlighting where GLOBE materials had to be adapted to suit the Scottish curriculum. At Annette Street Primary, Glasgow, senior pupils not only participated enthusiastically, but also passed on their expertise to younger colleagues.
"They showed them how to use the instruments and when and how to take readings," says Jean Macinnes. "As a teacher, I found it all pretty straightforward, even though I didn't have any science background when we started. It fitted the curriculum and was a good hands-on way of learning - plus the children could see it was part of a bigger picture and was a real thing, not just a classroom exercise."
At the Clydewatch launch, talks by Jill Knowles and physicist and TV weather presenter Heather Reid are followed by a cloud and lightning-making demonstration and a spectacular film of the earth from space. The invited education advisers, scientists and children are free to study a selection of displays including tiny trout hatchlings, the package of instruments bound for the top of the new Glasgow Tower, the Multi-Coloured Toilet used to teach children what should and should not be flushed, and sonar data Dr Farrow is using to build simulations of mini-submarine and helicopter trips above and below the surface of the Clyde.
Initially, the main focus of Clydewatch will be weather and the water cycle, but the science of water quality, soil and vegetation will gradually be added, and the number of participating schools, limited at first to 50, will be increased in the autumn.
"This is going to be a really exciting project," concludes forecaster Heather Reid, "and on many different fronts, not just a weather front!" In-service training, with notes and lesson-plans written by teachers using the latest guidance on 5-14 environmental studies, maths, and ICT, are provided to participating schools. For more information contact Jill Knowles, tel 0141 420 5010