Kevin Berry takes a deep breath and steps inside a virtual lung
"So, are there any questions?" asks Andy Williams.
"Yes," replies John Pickford. "What do we do if we get bored?"
"You won't be with this," says Andy, smiling with confidence. A group of 25 Year 7 students from St Robert of Newminster R C school, in Washington, Tyne and Wear, are about to try a piece of games software from Caspian Learning.
We are in suite two of Sunderland's City Learning Centre, which happens to be in the school grounds, and Andy Williams is its manager. "The application is so engaging," he says. "It looks like a game but it is based on sound educational principles. We'll have these children back in January for a couple of weeks. They'll be creating learning resources for other children using the environments and models created by Caspian as a central core. It's an exciting project because at the moment this has only ever been done by teachers. We want to see if they can access all the features, that they're immersed in the environment and that they find it motivating."
The topic is respiration. On their screens the students are navigating their way around a science lab. They have already found their way through a representation of the lungs to get them used to the Caspian system. They have chosen one of six characters in cool gear to represent themselves on the screen. In the lab, various purposeful adults, some in white coats, are walking back and forth and when we bump into them they will give us information. The information can be stored. "They look like teachers, which is kind of appropriate," says student Daniel Tumelty. "But it would be nice if they could be funny. When we looked at the inside of lungs the characters were good. Like a good film or a really good game. The information is given in words but sometimes a small illustration would be helpful."
The students must look out for giant asthma inhalers surrounded by see-through curtains, rather like the "beam me up Scottie" transporters in Star Trek. Touch the inhalers and a question appears with multiple-choice answers. Difficult words can be highlighted and they will be spoken by the machine. The children are then presented with a cross section of a cell.
Sentences underneath have gaps to be filled in. There is a time limit of 10 minutes and everyone gets cracking. Gold reward points provide an incentive and can be exchanged for skateboards and scooters. Well, not the real thing, the Learning Centre's budget will not quite run to 25 skateboards but we do have pictures. Once they have a skateboard the student's on-screen character uses it to navigate the Caspian environment that much faster.
"I managed 190 golds," says Michael Fox. "It's a good way of keeping score but there could be other things, like a bumper car or a Ferrari! And they could let you make your own character to represent yourself."
Individual student performance is measured and can be checked in a feedback section. A personalised revision screen provides links to areas where there are knowledge gaps. It is possible for the teacher to see how much time each student has spent reading information. At first, the reading is quick and scores are consequently low. The students soon pick up the importance of thorough reading and the scores improve, often doubling. Hannah Corrigan and Rebecca Johnson scored highly and finished well within the time limit.
There is, it should be noted, a pause button.
"Some of the questions were quite hard but I know more about science now,"
Rebecca suggests that the questions could be graded for different abilities and perhaps there could be more information in the different environments.
No one has been negative: everyone has been busy. David Dent, their teacher, is impressed. Everyone is focused and motivated. They are obviously revelling in the interaction.
"They are discovering information, finding it and storing it rather than being given it," says David. "They're engaged in their own self-learning and they're not worried about what everyone else is doing."
Was John Pickford bored? Not on your life. In fact he's too busy to say much beyond: "It's less stressful than reading a book and you know no one is copying you."
Andy Williams is pleased. The students have relished working with the Caspian system. Creating new e-learning materials for their peers and older children will not be beyond them.
"Speaking as a science teacher," he says. "If I wanted the wow factor, when teaching the heart and the lungs, I would go to the butcher's and get a set of lungs then get a straw and blow through the lungs. That would definitely have the wow factor. Some of the kids might think it had the 'ugh' factor! But the Caspian system takes it to the next level without the blood and gore."
lThe key stage 3 Respiration application costs pound;499 with an annual site licence fee of pound;499.
Tel: 0191 556 1043
* Andy Williams advises: "Look past the gaming aspect and you will see sound educational principles. It is based on Bloom's taxonomy. In fact the company was founded by two educational psychologists." The incentive provided by the gold reward system cannot be overestimated.
* Caspian applications can be used with older computers. They have been deliberately backdated, ie the file sizes are smaller.
* The Respiration application and all other Caspian applications share the same operating system and the same reward system.
* Caspian has former teachers in its organisation. They introduce the company's applications in the classroom and they will take the first lesson.