Learning goes wild

16th September 2005 at 01:00
Can US inspiration help UK children get the most from our National Parks? Jack Kenny heads for the hills to find out.

The kids at the first Lake District Science and Storytelling Camp were a world away from the usual picture of geeks crouched obsessively over computers in windowless rooms. The week-long camp gave 25 students, and their teachers, the means to explore ways of telling the many stories of the National Parks, using digital video, data-loggers and other ICT tools.

The idea's originator, Mark Standley from Anchorage, Alaska, is a stimulating change from the self-appointed gurus who dominate conferences. He works with children, he is still in the classroom, he is not obsessed with ICT, and he has an original message.

Standley has two main driving forces: he can see the threat to wild places across the world, and he thinks that conventional schooling is in crisis. "We want to build a network of children who are advocates of all wild places. We are hoping to get to a place where we can have seven camps in seven continents and at some point exchange students between those continents. In addition, children in Manchester will be able to video-conference with kids in Australia or Anchorage."

Explaining the week, Mark enthuses,"I can't imagine a more important writer for the English psyche than Wordsworth, who left behind powerful poems inspired by the hills and the lakes and the mountains. We brought the kids to Dove Cottage at Grasmere and we got them to stand in the room where he composed several of these poems. Then we took them on a hike on one of the fells giving them a feeling of what it is like to be a writer in a wild place. We then asked them to look at his work and then to write their own poems. After that we went further and used their poem to make a video in the steps of William Wordsworth. The second half of the week they're working with officers from the National Park and looking at the science issues. At the end of the week they work on some hard science research."

Advisers from Manchester LEA - who set this camp up on the same lines that Mark has used in the US - worked closely with the Lake District National Park (whose staff led the scientific investigations) and the Wordsworth Trust (whose staff led a day on Landscape and Storytelling). The venue, Ghyll Head Training Centre, on a hillside overlooking Lake Windermere, is owned by Manchester LEA.

The idea of using technology to put children back in touch with an elemental world has a very seductive appeal. The Year 9 children from Manchester thrived on the work that they were set during the week. Although Manchester was only 100 miles away, for many of the kids it could have been thousands. As they reflected on their work, as they had to do while editing their movies, it made them think not just about abstract science but about their place in a world that seemed to have expanded in their minds.

Standley believes that these camps are a window into what schools are going to look like in five or ten years.

"ICT is going to allow us to go outside the school buildings and, as children move outside the "box" of the school, we're going to develop the pedagogy, the methodology and the projects that are relevant to business, to the community and, in this case, relevant to National Parks."

In the US, the main technological development is the creation, of a "wireless cloud" (a portable wireless network, with no impact on the environment, that can connect wi-fi laptops and PDAs to the internet). Children can be away from the school and yet still be able to contact the school network.

Mark Standley used this technology in Alaska. "In the Denali National Park, we created a wireless cloud 30 miles long, so that children can be doing science or storytelling in the National Park in a pristine environment. They can communicate back with their own base or they could, in the future, communicate with children in Manchester.

"We're at a point where children can go anywhere in the world, do some research and communicate that back in real time to their school or to any school in the world. The implications for all schools are amazing."

Real schools without walls.

Key issues

* technology skills

* collaborative projects

* research driven

* presentation skills

* experience of wild places

* portable wirelesss networks for internet connectivity

* digital storytelling

* video-conferencing


* Digital Storytelling websites:http:its.ksbe.edudstwww.techlearning.comdigitalmediawww.story center.orgwww.emsb.qc.calauriermacrodwebmemodreamsstories.htmlwww.teachi ngstory.com * The Wainwright Society: www.wainwright.org.uk Feedback

Les Jones (science adviser, Manchester LEA): "The challenge for education is to find non-fiction that is as challenging and imaginative as great fiction. This camp is about that. We started by going to Orrest Head, one of the first places that Alfred Wainwright went to. His books about walking in the Lakes are purely factual and illustrate what can be done. The kids climbed to the top, looked around and were genuinely excited. Then we came here and we talked about the National Parks and Wainwright's non-fiction writing. His writing is unique."

Saqib Zahir (student): "We investigated how sound goes through leaves. We used microphones and data-loggers located near bushes to find how much sound the bushes absorbed. We recorded the sounds as line graphs and compared data that we got from different areas. We found that leaves do absorb sound. Rhododendron bushes in towns could absorb a great deal of sound."

Nyasha Mudondo (student): "I wrote a poem about my sister. I got the idea from Mark when we came back from the walk. I decided to picture her as everything around me. It was about how we can mix with the mountains, the forest, the waterfalls and everything. We also investigated the pH of the soil around trees. We're doing a video about that and the insects that live in the area."

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