Clever use of fluke lands them a big one

11th December 2009 at 00:00
Best presentation at the Junior Whale Conference saw Islay pupils adopt humpback

On a wild winter's night, a group of second-year pupils from Islay High takes a break on a long drive home, fills the gaps with burgers and chips, and tells the story of its recent successes way down south.

"We've been at a conference run by the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society at Alton Towers," says David Brown.

"We won the award for best presentation," says Ciara MacMillan. "So now we get to adopt a whale."

"It's a black humpback, called Midnight, and it lives in Canada," says Charlotte MacDougall.

As the voice for protection of these marine mammals, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) campaigns, funds research and organises events to raise awareness of the cruelty of whaling and the dangers to their environment.

The Junior Whale Conference is the most recent of these, with school groups around the UK being invited to prepare presentations and posters, and role-play the discussions of the International Whaling Commission, the body that sets the rules for hunting whales around the world.

But for Islay High, this important issue was not the main motivation, says depute head Stephen Harrison. "It was part of our drive to improve the confidence of our pupils. We worked hard on raising their skills as presenters, moving them from reading bullet points to talking freely. It took them out of their comfort zone. It was difficult stuff."

The aim was to make pupils see that they could research any topic and deliver a great presentation, says Mr Harrison. "Having gained the skills needed for this project, they feel confident about doing it with any subject to almost any audience.

"We take every opportunity to show our students that if they have dreams and ambitions, they should go for them. We organise an annual expedition abroad, most recently to Borneo. When our pupils leave, we want them to go to the mainland with the attitude: `Say what you like about Teuchters, but I've done this and this.' We don't want them to feel inferior to kids from city schools."

David doesn't. In fact, he describes himself as "a bit of a city kid", and fancies being an actor. But he admits giving a talk to other pupils is more intimidating than adults. "I can talk to them quite happily. It's harder with people your own age."

But it is satisfying, says Ashley Harrison. "We were the youngest at the conference. And we won because our presentation was interactive and we made them laugh. We attached a fluke to Ciara's legs and I threw a football at her and she hit it with the flipper. It was all to show how whales play football with jellyfish."

There was a more serious side, says Hannah Campbell, which the group knew little about before they began. Each participating school was assigned a different topic for its presentation - Islay's was whale intelligence and human interaction.

Then each pupil, working with biology teacher Jeannie McNaughton, took a sub-topic to investigate in their spare time. "Mine was social awareness," says Hannah, "which is about the culture of whales and how they communicate. I looked up the meanings, then I researched the culture. I found quite a few articles. I also had to look at positive exploitation - how we can use whales in good ways, like tourism."

What surprised Ciara about her research was how some countries still try to justify the bad ways, and how whales are hacked to pieces to make meat, margarine, transmission oil, perfume and cat food. "I thought most people would be against it. But some countries still whale. They don't need to and they say it's for scientific reasons. But they're just tricking us and bending the law."

The biggest surprise for Charlotte was where whales originated, she says: "They were cow-like creatures that went into the water for food, lost their fur and grew fins and flippers."

Ashley will never forget the conference or all they learned in preparing for it, she says. "I thought whales were just big fat things that swam in the sea. But they're more than that. Mark Simmonds (WDCS international director of science) was really interested in what we said. He asked us questions, making us think. You can't get whales to sit exams. But there are other ways to work out that they're really, really intelligent."

Ian Stuart describes himself as "just the driver" on this expedition. But the technology teacher has been a big player in the adoption of ICT across the school - a key component in the effort to help pupils achieve their "dreams and ambitions".

"This was a real outcome to all the changes we've been making at Islay High over the past four years," he says, as he shepherds his pupils aboard the minibus for the last leg of the journey home.

Islay High's School of Ambition journey: http:prezi.comp1wtewty- 4o9

Ian Stuart's weblog:

Junior Whale Conference: http:bit.ly79nMGc.

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