Primary schoolchildren in an Avon village have become international high fliers since Bristol University connected them to the Internet, writes Noel Whalley. Sandford County Primary school is 103 years old. It is a relatively small rural village school between Weston-super-Mare and Cheddar. The original Victorian schoolroom and house are now surrounded by four pre-fabricated buildings which provide classrooms for the 110 children on the roll. The children in the top junior class have expanded their world dramatically by connecting with other schools worldwide via the electronic mail facilities of the Internet system of international computer networks.
Willing parents provided a telephone extension from the school office to their classroom along with a modem to send and receive messages to and from their PC 386 computer. Electronic mail access to the Internet is provided by Bristol University.
The pupils are participating in the international Kidlink project which allows them to communicate by electronic mail with schools in any of the countries participating in the scheme. Children between 10 and 15 years enrol simply by answering the following questions: Who am I? What do I want to be when I grow up? How do I want the world to be better when I grow up? What can I do now to make this happen?
Their replies are held on a computer at Kidlink's home at the North Dakota State University which can be accessed by all participants. And then the dialogue begins.
Kidlink Society is based on the premise that if children are able to communicate with their peers around the world, they will have a better understanding of the needs of others and a better chance of solving some of the world's problems in the future.
Kidlink's participants come from countries and societies which often have widely differing views on social, ethical, legal and moral issues.
Since 1990, the organisers estimate that more than 23,000 children, from about 60 different countries in all continents have taken part in the project. Kidlink Society is an international non-profit organisation. Its operational base is in Norway with individual and corporate sponsors in many countries. Membership is open to individuals and organisations but is not a requirement of participation; Kidlink's purpose is to encourage communication.
Once or twice every day e-mail messages that have arrived from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Greece, the Ukraine and many other countries are "delivered" (downloaded, in the jargon) to the school PC. They consider and discuss these before using word processors to compose their replies. These communications deal with every kind of exchange; about hobbies, out-of-school interests, pets, local geography, food, and recently, from the United States, of course, a detailed account of the dental work necessary for the fitting of a brace to a participant's teeth.
But Kidlink is not just about electronic pen-pals. There are various projects in which children can participate which generate results which can be accessed and used to enrich work in the classroom. As a contribution to a recent architecture and science project, some members of Sandford's Class 4 produced drawings of Stonehenge and the hill fort at nearby Worlebury. These, together with a drawing of their Victorian school building were scanned into the computer and sent by e-mail to Kidlink where they are now held electronically and can be accessed globally. Other projects have included wildlife under threat (initiated in Argentina) and the design of an ideal school.
The recent partial eclipse of the sun was tracked across the world as it happened. Differences in time and area of shade were noted as the eclipse progressed, providing up-to-the minute data for study and discussion later. Unfortunately, total cloud cover in the west of England prevented a Sandford contribution.
Data has also been collected from a simple experiment of measuring the length of shadow cast by a one-metre stick at noon in a variety of different countries and making a comparison of the results obtained.
A more permanent link has now been established with Harley School, New York, and videos made by the children have been exchanged. A new contact just initiated is with a class of Navajo children at their reservation school in Arizona. Outside Kidlink, parents at a school open evening received numerous greetings from 26 different countries. And earthquakes around the world have been monitored as they happened, from daily information supplied by the American earthquake centre.
Classes lower down the school are now also using the Internet connection to make international links. Teaching staff use the connection to correspond with colleagues by way of the UK Schools E-mail List (held at firstname.lastname@example.org). All this has occurred because of the initial interest of class teacher Mike Forrow, who now acts as the adult supervisor, as required by the Kidlink rules, and headteacher Neil Tuttiett.
The enthusiasm of the children is enormous, as is the support of one of the school governors who negotiated the connection with Bristol University. Indeed, his participation has been so energetic that he was recently designated a Kidlink Wizard - a person sufficiently expert to be able to offer help to any local newcomers to the system.
The school's initiative is about to be rewarded since one of the major computer manufacturers is making the school a gift of a PC system. All they need now is a dedicated phone line . . . and they are working on that.
Kidlink's e-mail address is KIDLINK @YM1.NODAK.EDU.