The BT round-the-world yacht race is providing an enticing introduction to the Net for many British schools. Phil Revell reports.
Spare a thought for Ben Pearson. While the rest of us were entertaining and over-indulging on Christmas pudding, Ben was facing 40ft waves as a crew member on Toshiba Wave Warrior, one of the yachts competing in the BT round-the-world race. And Ben's got more than the weather on his mind. At St Lucia's Primary School, Upton Magna, Shropshire, as the new term starts, children will rush to check Wave Warrior's position and to update the leader-board which occupies a central position on the school's main noticeboard.
St Lucia's is using the Internet to follow Ben's progress every day. The headteacher, Richard Green, is Ben's cousin and is himself keen on all things nautical. So it was natural that when Ben was selected as a crew member, Richard would seize the opportunity to involve his school.
With BT sponsoring the race, communications were obviously going to be given a high priority. The race has its own site on the World Wide Web from which you can surf to a whole series of individual pages covering the yachts, the route, the weather, individual crew and ports of call. Each yacht has its own home page. Some of these have resources specifically aimed at schools following the race. Two teachers - Gordon Cunningham, a senior teacher at Ashmead School, Reading, and Malcolm Thornley from Dorset - are participating as crew and both have Internet pages which schools can access.
Ben's involvement began when he visited the school in the summer and chalked an outline of Wave Warrior on the school playground to demonstrate to the children the scale of the boat. He brought wet-weather gear, dressed one of the children in it and proceeded to demonstrate its effectiveness by throwing buckets of water at her.
Once he set sail in September the project began in earnest. The pupils wrote letters which awaited Ben's arrival in Rio. He has been kept informed of all aspects of school life, including the death of the pet rabbit, Snowy.
Back at school, the leader-board began to take shape. Contributions came from children and parents who sent in press cuttings and information from Ceefax. Detailed weather reports and charts could be downloaded from the Net every day. Richard Green said: "It brings the whole school together."
The school has signed on to the Internet as a direct result of the race and Richard Green regards it as "a giant, year-long in-service for the school". More importantly the race gives "a real reason for using the Net". Each boat has fax and electronic mail facilities and the first e-mail St Lucia's received was an important event.
Richard Green believes that the extended nature of the race is a positive advantage for schools. "There's no hurry. In a year's time we will be a long way down the IT road thanks to the race - it fits very nicely with what we want to do."
Paul Owen is head of history at Twynham School in Dorset and is following Malcolm Thornley's progress: "We tracked the race down to Rio, getting maps and latitude and longitude positions from the Net." Like Ben Pearson, Malcolm had visited the school before the race which gave the project what Paul Owen described as the "wow" factor. Students are using the race in different ways. One is using it to further his GCSE coursework (Information Technology); others are developing their e-mail skills. Paul sees this as a real benefit. The school's head is planning an exchange with a school in New Zealand and e-mail skills developed as a result of the race are likely to make communications easier.
More than 1,000 schools are following the race, but not all are able to use the Internet to do so. At Gordon Cunningham's school in Reading, the head of geography, Debbie Brennan, would like to use the Net to follow Gordon's progress but lacks the computer access. "We're keeping in touch with faxes and maps," she says.
Back in the Southern Ocean, the boats are in port at Wellington, New Zealand, resting before beginning the next leg to Sydney on February 9. Ben Pearson bears a heavy responsibility: St Lucia's expects him to win.
BT's Main racesite http:www.btchallenge.com
Malcolm Thornley's race home page http:3com.bournemouth-net.co.uk
The Global Teamwork home page (with informtion for schools provided by Gordon Cunningham) http:vb.labs.bt.comGlobal_Teamwork
To send messagesto skippers and crews http:www.btchallenge.comopenmskipper.htm
* For schools who wish to follow the race without using the Internet, contact: The BT Global Challenge Education Network Tel or fax 01767 677124 or write to BT Global Challenge Network, PO Box 594, Sandy, Bedfordshire. SG19 3PU. Berkshire LEA has, inconjunction with Oracle, a yacht sponsor, produced an education pack partly written by Gordon Cunningham before he set sail. It's available from Berkshire Local Education Authority.
BT stand 251 Friday January 10, 11.30am: pupils from schools in London, Bristol and Brighton who have been tracking the progress of the race will be staging a live link-up with race competitors who are scheduled, by then, to be docked in Wellington, New Zealand