Plumbing the hidden depths
Water has a wonderful fascination for human beings; young and old alike are drawn to rivers, the sea, even tiny ponds. Life in and around water is, as every teacher knows, fecund, diverse and a wonderful teaching resource.
Everyone who has anything to do with the natural sciences has done water. You would imagine that there is hardly anything more to say on the subject, but this new pack from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Education Department takes us through a phenomenal range of water-related topics at breathless speed and depth, in a concisely organised arrangement of new ideas and new methods of approach.
This pack is, in fact, an investigation of freshwater life (the marine habitat is completely ignored which makes the title a little misleading). Aimed principally at 11 to 14-year-olds for science and geography, each activity topic in the books is discreetly keyed by logo to individual subjects, starting from the microscopic flora and fauna in all its astonishing complexity, and ending with water conservation and the bio-technology of pollution management through reed-bed treatment systems.
No punches are pulled in this water course; the authors (education staff at the RSPB anonymously credited) take it as read that once the children's interest is roused, their appetite is voracious and comprehensive. They do not make the mistake of thinking that children can take only certain kinds of information served up in child dosages. What we get then is state of the art science co-ordinated between the teachers' and students' books represented in 24 inter-related learning activities.
One section, for example, examines different aquatic habitats, and in detail the way animals adapt to greater or lesser oxygen levels: beetle and mosquito larvae taking oxygen from the water surface; water spiders and water beetles taking it down from the surface; worms and leeches absorbing dissolved oxygen all over their body surface; mayfly, caddis and other larvae and fish through special gills, having created a breathing current to create a flurry of fresh water; while certain deeper water animals such as ramshorn snails, tubifex worms and water fleas possess a pigment similar to haemoglobin which makes it possible for them to respire in the bottom of ponds or muddy places where dissolved oxygen is in short supply.
Students are invited to study the contrasting aspects of the freshwater habitats such as the varying levels of oxygen in ponds, rivers, and lakes; and comparative land and water temperature through the seasons and the life forms associated with each. There are practical experiments associated with the gradual freezing of freshwater ponds, the nature of feathers, and projects involving excellent keys for the identification of birds and aquatic life, and pollution measurement.
In an investigation of the surface tension the children are encouraged to make a model pond skater out of 5-amp fuse wire, and then to experiment with soapy, oily and detergent-dosed water in a simulated pond in a basin; then to grease and wax the model skater's legs.
A videotape increases the price of any resource package, but RSPB research indicated that teachers wanted a video with which they could introduce the subject as a whole and this one is well up to the standards of commercial natural history documentary.
The RSPB has entered into a sponsorship agreement with Esso for this project and is selling the pack at cost, an extraordinarily low price for materials of such exceptional quality.