Drop in on the ocean

17th January 2003 at 00:00
One man single-handedly tackling the world's longest and most thrilling yacht race is not going completely solo - schools everywhere can sail alongside via a unique website. Rod Savage explains

More people have been into space than have sailed around the globe alone, and, for every eight people to climb Everest, only one goes solo around the world. Graham Dalton (left), one of 12 competitors in this year's Around Alone global yacht race, is chasing a rare dream.

But Dalton is not content with just this achievement. He believes the single-minded determination required, and the inspirational connotations of the race - one human against the might of the world's oceans - can be the foundation for another of his dreams: making the world a better place through education. Or as he puts it: "Imagine if everyone in the world could be the best they could be - what a different place it would be."

If that leaves you a little seasick, Dalton's genuine dedication is an antidote. Yes, his goal is to win the race, but his principal drive is education. He believes this race can highlight to children of any background in any part of the world that, if you set your mind to it, the seemingly impossible can be achieved. But how can this idealistic vision of global education jump from dream world to classroom? Dalton, who prior to this race set up a magazine to inspire young people through sport in his native New Zealand, approached HSBC bank in London in the hope it would provide funding to generate an answer.

The chief executive of HSBC's education trust, Dame Mary Richardson, shares Dalton's belief in what she calls "attitudinal education" - get young people's attitudes right and the rest falls into place - and saw the potential of his vision. She agreed to a sponsorship deal and called Dave Berry, deputy head of Thomas Telford School in Shropshire, to nail down the details.

The result is www.education.hsbc.co.uk, a state-of-the-art website that incorporates race information with a cross-curricular programme for nine to 12-year-olds which enables students to follow the race in real time and lets them become a "virtual crew-member", researching upcoming ports of call, finding out about Dalton's yacht Hexagon and learning about the seas and the life in them. Berry has developed weekly activities that require pupils to read information then research on or offline. Suitable links are provided and subjects covered include scurvy, volcanoes, Guy Fawkes, the Equator, Table Mountain in Cape Town, Torbay, sharks, drinking water, sea shanties and immigration. Students can email questions to Dalton via a message board and he writes regular updates from the ocean for the website.

"We decided to take it down to primary level as we could make it truly cross- curricular," explains Berry. "We cover RE, geography, citizenship, maths, music, technology, science, art ..."

The race embarked on its third leg from Cape Town in South Africa to Tauranga in New Zealand last month with Dalton lying fourth. He is currently bobbing about somewhere on the Southern Ocean. The website manages to find educational potential in all parts of the voyage. To coincide with the Cape Town stopover was the following activity: "Being here in Cape Town is an amazing experience - did you know that South Africa has 11 different official languages? One of the most famous cultures in South Africa is that of the Zulu nation. As they are based mainly in the eastern side of this great country I am not going to have enough time to visit and find out about the Zulu people at first hand. Perhaps you could help me find out about the Zulu culture?"

This "can you help?" style is consistent throughout Berry's activities. "I wanted to find a way that students would actually think they're helping Graham go around the world," he says. "I hope they think of themselves as a kind of virtual crew. Graham is so busy sailing the boat that he needs students' help in finding out about the places he is going past or visiting. They get a sense of being there with him and as it all happens in real time, it is an exciting way for them to experience the race."

Once registered, students get an online logbook in which they complete the site's activities. They submit the logbook for assessment and once they receive the answers (done in advance by Berry and distributed automatically), they are able to access "treasure" in the form of an online game. This self-assessment means teachers can take lesson ideas further in the classroom or simply allow students to absorb facts while having fun. "It can be used at home, in the classroom, as a group or individually," enthuses Berry.

Berry's involvement with HSBC goes back to 2000, when he developed the popular Project 40 online curriculum programme, and he has done several projects with the bank's educational trust since. Berry says he is impressed with Dalton's passion to help young people and is "very excited" about the content and global reach of the website.

Berry encourages teachers to become involved with the final three legs of the race even if they missed the first two. And there is a lot of education to be squeezed from the event between now and the finish line in Newport, Rhode Island, some time around May 5.

The website receives about 1,500 hits a day and 50,000 unique (not repeated) visitors have logged on from 35 different countries, including Europe, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Taiwan, Chile, Iran, Poland, Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, Pakistan, Singapore and Saudi Arabia. On January 4, an activity was posted about leatherback turtles. This was linked to Dalton releasing a beacon midway between Cape Town and Tauranga to track the endangered animals as part of a French educational environmental programme. This activity, like all those put up since the race started, can still be accessed.

Activities have a weekly cycle. They include: on January 18, a Maori folk tale; solving international time-zone problems (January 25); researching icebergs (February 15 - see below for help with research); creating a Mardi Gras (March 1); designing ocean flags using percentages (March 15); studying the Amazon (March 22); understanding why the Panama Canal was built (March 29); writing a newspaper article about the Bermuda Triangle (April 5); and even creating a "stuck in the doldrums" poem for when Dalton will be doing just that (April 19).

Permeating the website throughout is Dalton and his idealistic, attitudinal, educational vision. He hopes Berry's practical work, coupled with his own inspirational journey, is helping to show students that "hard work, discipline, personal excellence and personal responsibility" are important foundations - not just for school, but for life.

A poster of the Around Alone route, with classroom activities, is in the centre of this issue of TES Teacher

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