Fortnights far away

27th September 1996 at 01:00
A-level students can now taste work overseas. Val Hall tells how. Students with a spirit of adventure generally have to wait until completing A levels and taking a gap year before venturing overseas to work with other communities. But with Fulcrum, a new Science Exploration Society initiative, selected students can spend two weeks in remote areas of the globe in their first year of A-levels, and get a taste of the science and business worlds at the same time.

With its motto of "investing in the business and social leaders of the future" and the support of British Airways and the Institute of Directors, Fulcrum looks for certain qualities in expedition members. Venturers raise Pounds 800 through their own initiative and local sponsorship, are required to undertake a "payback" community project on their return, spend a week director-shadowing, and write up an A-level linked project carried out while overseas. They should be keen conservationists and an interest in science, botany, and geology is helpful although not essential.

To be accepted, most students are first screened by their schools through essays and nominated to apply for the 18 places available on each expedition. They send in an application form explaining at length why they want to participate and the sheep are then sorted from the goats at a rigorous outdoor management training weekend. Darren Redfern from Rainey Endowed School, Magherafelt, County Tyrone, for example, was put through his paces over a Royal Ulster Constabulary assault course on a freezing January weekend.

In the past year a group from Wales has visited a Welsh-speaking community in Patagonia and two parties from Northern Ireland have been to India. "I learned a lot about the ecology of the desert and how dependent every living organism is on water," says Darren Redfern, a biology, physics and mathematics student, of his expedition to the Great Indian Desert between Bikaner and Jodhpur in Rajasthan, "and we were taught survival skills [by Graham Kerridge, Fulcrum's special projects director] such as how to build a solar still out of polythene and plastic to generate water and how to navigate using the night sky and a sun dial."

Darren's group visited schools, exchanged songs and dances with the children, planted trees for medicinal purposes and shelter - essential in temperatures of 110 degrees - and handed out pens, pencils, stationery, and clothes. On an earlier expedition to India, students rebuilt a school playing field using primitive tools and cleared the river of rubbish.

Study projects are undertaken in ones and twos under the supervision of a teacher (besides the team leader, students and a doctor, the group normally comprises a carefully vetted mix of four teachers and business people).

Hannah Barnsley from Prestatyn High School, a biology, chemistry and physics student and young farmer, examined methods of farming in Patagonia and the effects of climate. She and fellow group member Elliott Adams, from Aberdare Boys' Comprehensive, mid Glamorgan, came to appreciate what the early settlers endured and are enthusiastic about the wildlife, particularly whales and rheas (small ostriches). Like the Northern Ireland contingent, they planted friendship trees, signing their names on the back alongside local people, cleared areas in schools to grow plants, and "sang a lot".

For his payback community project, Darren spent two weekends at Port Rush on the north coast of Northern Ireland helping to restore eroding sand dunes and planting grasses for the British Trust for Nature Conservation. He says this reinforced his study on sand dune systems carried out last October on a biology field trip. Elliott Adams also joined a BTNC project, clearing dense patches of rhododendrons in Snowdonia.

What have the students gained from their experiences? "I became a lot more independent and organised, as our team leaders didn't do anything for us - we arranged everything ourselves," Hannah Barnseley says. All agreed that, thrown into close proximity with 17 other students they had never met before - accommodation in Patagonia, for example, ranged from bunk beds in a sports hall to chalets in the Andes - they had to be able to get along. But most of all, they benefited from increased self confidence and assertiveness, and had learned how to co-operate with and understand people from other cultures.

Forthcoming expeditions include: a BelfastDublin peace initiative to South Africa, a Scottish group to Paraguay and a Manchester group to China. In 1997 Fulcrum hopes to add south-west England and the Channel Islands to its catchment areas in Northern Ireland, Wales, Manchester, Newcastle and Scotland.

Further information: John Hunt, development director, Scientific Exploration Society, Expedition Base, Motcombe, Dorset SP7 9PB. Telfax: 01747 853353

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