Field of dreams;Secondary

24th April 1998 at 01:00
A select group of young environmentalists is getting the chance of a lifetime, travelling to remote destinations to find out about science in the real world. Diana Hinds reports

Saving the rainforest, for science student Joanna Dunkley, had always been just one of those slogans - until she got a chance to go there and help save it herself.

Joanna had been doggedly studying for A-levels in physics, chemistry, maths and further maths at North London Collegiate, an independent girls school. Last year she was one of 10 award winners in the Young Scientists of the Year scheme run by environmental charity Earthwatch and sponsored by the oil company ARCO to the tune of pound;31,000. So in the summer following her A-levels, she took off for Ecuador, where she spent two weeks working with scientists and other volunteers. The project aimed to assess the biological richness of the cloud forest in the coastal mountain region, and encourage local villagers to find ways of preserving the forest.

It was her first real taste of how science can be applied to global problems and how scientists can make a difference to people's lives. The experience has transformed her outlook. "I'd spent hours in science labs, and wanted to go out and see science in the field," says Joanna, now 18 and studying natural sciences at Cambridge University. "I'd had no urge to save the rainforest until I saw it for real. Working out there made me realise how hard it is for the people who live there. I want to carry on with science, but I don't want to sit in a lab all day. I want to be outside, using my energy and enthusiasm."

Attracting students to science at school, university, and on into industry, is one of those national missions that will always need all the help it can get. Science subjects, particularly at A-level, are by necessity laboratory-based and curriculum-driven, leaving little or no time for discovering the challenge and excitement of science in action. So the Earthwatch and ARCO scheme, although small-scale, is hugely valuable in bringing some glamour to a subject better known to students for its slog.

This year Earthwatch invited applications from A-level students at the 50 highest-achieving state and independent schools in The Times's lists, making final awards to four state school pupils and six independent - four boys and six girls. In future, it hopes to extend the scheme to include able pupils from schools that perform less well overall.

"As well as academic excellence, we're looking for that little bit of extra interest and motivation in relation to the environment," says Simon Martyn, executive director of Earthwatch. "These are people likely to be influential in their future careers. Even if they choose to work in business, their environmental awareness will affect the decisions they make, and help to create more enlightened global citizens."

At a conference last month, award winners met scientists who will be leading this summer's international projects, which include monitoring pollution in Russia's great lakes, and levels of acid rain in the forests of Bohemia. Last year's winners were also there to talk about their experiences.

John Broderick, 18, studying chemistry, physics, maths and biology at Newcastle Royal Grammar School, gave a fluent presentation on the subject of coral bleaching in San Salvador - a recently acknowledged but unexplained phenomenon indicating a threat to these ecosystems. John's main task involved snorkelling out over the reefs - always with a partner in case of sharks - and helping map the corals, examining them for any signs of bleaching.

Evening lectures by project scientist Tom McGarth explained the finer points of coral identification and the wider implications of the research. The Caribbean island also afforded delights of its own - beaches, bat-filled caves, games of baseball, and a convivial (black widow spider-infested) snack bar.

"I'd never been involved in a project like this, where my work actually mattered," says Neelam Kumar, 16, from Caistor Grammar School in Lincolnshire, another ARCO Young Scientist posted to San Salvador. "It's been inspirational. School science can be limited. Schemes like this are useful for people like us who want to expand their knowledge of science."

Paul Fannon, 18, from King Edward Sixth Camp Hill, a state school in Birmingham, was wavering between medicine and a science degree until he joined the San Salvador project. "Seeing science in the field, and mixing with scientists who showed how much they enjoyed their work has persuaded me to do science. It's been very different from textbook science at school, and far more enjoyable."

Also speaking at the Earthwatch conference, Joanna Dunkley gave a graphic, good-humoured account of her reforestation work in Ecuador, which involved scrambling up steep muddy slopes, carrying water and saplings to the pastures, where she had to dig with blunt spades in hard ground. At other times, surveying forest birds, she would get up at 5am to check the nets at half-hourly intervals, then sit in the forest sewing up holes in the nets after the birds had been released.

But despite strenuous work and fairly primitive conditions, Joanna was captivated by life in the forest. "Having your shower with nothing but trees around you, or going to sleep to the sound of monkeys, frogs and the drip, drip of water was amazing." She also enjoyed getting to know the local people in the remote village where they stayed.

Andrew Russell, lecturer in physical geography at Keele University, says:

"These projects give students a go at research they wouldn't get at school, and are a good transition to the problem-solving approach of science at degree level, as well as being a great physical challenge. It's the opportunity I wish I'd had." He will be leading an Earthwatch team this summer to survey the effects of the 1996 volcanic eruption in Iceland.

This project will be more physically testing than most, with the lurking danger of further eruptions, but Simon King, 17, from Nottingham High School, is far from daunted. "It's the adventure element that appeals," he says. "It could also influence me greatly in my choice between an academic career in science or a job in business."

For more information contact Earthwatch.Tel: 01865 311600

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