Primary schoolchildren visiting Leigh Environmental Education Centre for the first time find their way around the building and the 37-acre wetland nature reserve surrounding it with remarkable ease. They recognise with uncanny perception the animals, insects and some of the 130 species of birds found there. It's almost as though they had been there many times before.
And in a way they have. This year more than 2,000 primary and secondary pupils will pass through the centre, located between Warrington and Manchester. Many of the primary schools will have been sent in advance a virtual reality CD-Rom that simulates the site on a computer screen. Using the computer, pupils can move around a model of the nature reserve and centre as they wish, familiarising themselves with the layout and the creatures that live there.
They can drive through the building, go on to the roof or dive underground. They can visit the bird hide, explore lakes and parts of the reserve not accessible to visitors, take off like a Canada goose to survey the landscape from on high or swim like a fish to see what's happening beneath the surface of the several ponds and lakes.
Key stage 3 and 4 pupils, who are using the CD-Rom at the centre rather than in their schools, can go much deeper. They can enter a leaf and explore a plant cell, travel on an atom and tour the carbon cycle, see how nitrogen is cycled by nature and investigate photosynthesis.
On a click of the mouse, text-boxes give questions and some information, but this is very different from an encyclopaedic CD-Rom, says Terry Hayes, the scheme's educational development officer and co-author of the package. He explains it has much more to do with spatial awareness, observation and encouraging further learning than with presenting facts and figures. "It is designed so that teachers can use it straight away, to build up recognition and observational skills."
A visit to the centre extends and reinforces this preliminary work. Providing easy access to nature for schoolchildren in the industrialised North West, the centre and its surrounding nature reserve is the result of an alliance between the Wigan Education Business Partnership and North West Water Ltd. The land is owned by the water company's conservation department. Nearby is the site of it's waste water treatment works.
The centre is housed in a huge, converted l00-year-old barn, which, though a thoroughly modern building, retains features of its past life as a cattle barn. The floors are stone and the outer walls wood. The brick stalls where the animals were tethered for milking also remain, although they now house workstations for computers rather than cows.
A second barn is being renovated. Here unemployed art graduates will be offered studios and accommodation in exchange for working with schoolchildren on projects linked to environmental issues. Another environmental centre for key stage 1 is planned at a nearby site.
The centre provides a wide range of educational activities for children and teachers. A one-day programme for key stage 2 pupils starts with a talk on the water cycle, during which children are encouraged to act the parts of sun, sea, cloud, land and hill, and to discuss water conservation. It goes on to include a visit to the bird hide and other parts of the reserve, a pollution game and mini-beast hunt.
Secondary schools can also choose from a wide range of studies. Year 7 pupils from Lowton High School, near Wigan, recently explored and compared pond life at various depths, identified birds and trees and carried out a land study using meters and data logging equipment supplied by the centre to gauge changes in light, moisture, humidity and ph levels at a range of distances from one of the ponds.
They also looked at a part of the virtual reality programme on food chains. Back at school they followed up their findings with further research in the library. On the basis of the day's visit they achieved a CREST (Creativity in Science and Technology) award and their teacher was able to tick off several national curriculum levels.
"Exciting" was the word most often used by the students to describe their day. As one child commented: "It's not just like writing, it's doing things. "
Leigh Environmental Education Centre, Hope Carr Barn, Hope Carr Lane, Leigh, Lancashire WN7 3XB. Tel: 01942 601114