Imaginations take flight

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Mark Hellen takes to the air with his Year 3s to explore East Anglia. Tim Rylands reports.

Using software not originally designed for schools is not new to Mark Hellen; a few years ago he used a program called Dance eJay with the children in his class to develop their composition, which helped them improve their written work as well as music. Now Dance eJay has an educational version to be used on a school network.

Previously he had used Sim Earth to develop a range of skills including environmental awareness. So, as a Year 3 teacher at William Tyndale Primary School in north London, when Mark wanted children to understand what it is like to live in a village, turning to software which had not been produced for educational purposes was unproblematic.

As the nearest village to Islington is about 20 miles of torturous traffic away, he tried an alternative by using his interactive whiteboard and Microsoft Flight Simulator. He combined this with an add-on program, VFR Photographic Scenery, for the south-east of England and decided to fly the children from Norwich airport along the north Norfolk coast.

With the children fastening their seat belts, metaphorically speaking, they took off and flew towards Cromer, turned left and followed the coast westwards from there. One of the features of Flight Sim is that you can switch to different views, including one directly downwards from the plane.

With Photographic Scenery installed this meant that they were effectively flying over a large detailed photo of the Home Counties and East Anglia.

Mark had equipped the children with maps of the area and he could halt the program to look at features and get children to identify the names of villages en route. They eventually ended up at Cley next the Sea near Blakeney Point and this was the cue to go into Google image search and find some pictures of the village, including its famous windmill. An ordinary Google search subsequently provided the children with some evidence of what goes on in Cley.

Subsequent flights from London City Airport over their local area enabled the children to study the urban landscape of London from the sky. They also started using Flight Sim to explore other areas of the world. As one of the children had just gone to New York, they explored Manhattan Island and this time the children were able to fly themselves, taking the joystick and taking off and flying round the skyscrapers to see the sights.

The only problems he has found were relatively minor: when Mark started out using Flight Simulator 2002, for example, he found the designers had put the Millennium Dome in Waterloo instead of Greenwich. Mark also says: "when you use Flight Sim with the photographic scenery then all relief is flattened, so the children can fly around Canary Wharf tower in normal mode, but when you introduce the photographic scenery it is squashed flat and does not stick up into the air."

Mark and his class have since explored other parts of the world: "Children have developed their skills at flying; take-off and flight is easy but landing can be really hard for them. However this can be very useful for developing co-ordination and spatial awareness skills. You need to make sure that the settings are configured to be more realistic so that it stops when you crash otherwise the virtual plane the children are flying will bounce if they hit the ground! Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that Flight Sim 2004 requires a relatively high spec computer, whereas 2002 will run on my laptop which is three years old. Well worth trying to upgrade though."

Mark is now considering it as a starting point for topic work on aviation which could generate interest among the boys especially, and help boost other subjects such as literacy, maths or ICT. The work could include writing flight plans, flight reports, advertising the airline or holidays, a spreadsheet of flights to different destinations, calculating flight times and planning in-flight catering on a budget. It would also be a good exercise to encourage children to analyse the software they are using critically; how could it be improved?

Mark is planning to use Flight Sim 2004 to explore other parts of the world with his Year 6 class. Google Earth, however, makes some of this possible without even using a virtual aircraft, although the resolution of most non-urban areas is not yet as good as Flight Sim with VFR Scenery.

There are other add-ons you can get to make Flight Sim more interesting; Hong Kong's Kai Tek airport being a pretty good one (it is described as one of the world's most "interesting" airports) and others are being produced all the time including software which makes the terrain more realistic. "I am sure it could have many more uses in the future as technology enables greater definition of the terrain. This kind of software will continue to develop and make for even better learning experiences for the children."

Mark says: "Using software which is not actually produced for educational purposes has many benefits; usually it is of a much better quality than educational software as the development budget of the producers is much larger. However, it does mean that teachers have to exercise a good deal of judgment in their selection of programs, not that this isn't necessary with software produced for schools, and there is also a lot of rubbish out there. I am sure there are more programs out there which could be used to enhance children's learning; it is just up to teachers to let their imaginations take flight."

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004 Price: pound;49.99. Tel: 0870 60 10 100.

VFR Photographic Scenery: East and South-East England from Just Flight Price: pound;9.99 www.justflight.comen(whnga4qhm2ajedntkrgpejn1)index.aspx Tim Rylands will be giving a presentation of his work at the TESBecta Day of Good Practice at BETT 2006 Olympia, London on Thursday, January 11.

Teaching tips

Mark Hellen's ideas for teaching with Microsoft Flight Sim When you are flying, right-click on the screen and a menu comes up which enables you to change the view, so you can fly without the cockpit and controls in front of you, looking at the plane you are flying from another plane or looking straight down from the bottom of the aircraft (this is the best one to use with the photographic scenery). This button is also useful for pausing in mid flight to talk about what you are flying over.

* Start off with an easy aircraft to fly, like a Cessna. There are lots to choose from and some can be difficult to control, and forget about the helicopter until you have really practised. Go to "Settings" and change the "Realism Settings" and make sure you have unchecked "ignore crash", also change the "Crash Tolerance" level to "more real" otherwise the children will soon learn that they can bounce their planes off anything. On the other hand, leave it checked while you are practising yourself.

* You do need a joystick. You can use the arrow keys but they are hard even if you are a dab hand at flying.

* Check out for new scenery or terrain enhancers as they become available.

New ones are bringing released all the time.

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