Space to stretch the mind

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Kilve Court in Somerset is a place where very able pupils can spend a week stretching their powers in problem solving and investigation. Richard Masters describes this unusual residential centre. Pupils working from nine in the morning to nine o'clock at night, anxious to find solutions, keen to learn new concepts and skills, discussing their assignments even in their leisure time. Surely this is a teacher's dream or some headteacher's vivid imagination. Well no, because this really happens. The place is Kilve Court and the students are bright Year 9 mathematicians.

Stretching very able pupils must be one of the greatest headaches for schools and local authorities. For several years Somerset Education Authority has been helping schools by providing the opportunities for these highly talented youngsters to be sent on courses where they can work with others of high ability on projects which will both stimulate and develop their talents. It is called "The Kilve Experience".

You could not ask for a more delightful setting than Kilve Court, nestling within the village of Kilve itself. The sea is a five minute walk on one side while the Quantock Hills act as an extension to the grounds at the rear of the building. Once a private residence, it is now owned by Somerset County Council. The council deserves a pat on the back, it must have been tempting, at a time of savage cut backs, to sell the centre and run.

Kilve Court is used for a variety of purposes: courses for pupils, adventure or theme holidays, sixth-form conventions, in-service training for teachers and other workers, and much else. The age range using the centre ranges from six to 70.

One of the most successful uses has been the running of courses for exceptionally able pupils from Somerset Schools and the surrounding counties. These courses are run for children from Years 6 to 9. Such courses are run in creative writing, mathematics, science, foreign languages, geography, history, art and others. The courses are organised and run by LEA advisers, adviser teachers, consultants and teachers from Somerset schools under the administrative guidance of the director of Kilve Court, Ray Hancock.

This year's Year 9 maths course was led by Sue Masters, senior teacher and former head of mathematics at King Alfred's School in Burnham on Sea. Sue was responsible for last year's successful course and has been involved in four others. She sees the course as a real opportunity not only to develop pupils but also the teacher's strategies for dealing with able pupils, which they can then use in their own schools. Her aims were to challenge pupils mathematically, to get them to practise skills and their applications, to encourage team work and the interchange of ideassharingdiscussion, and to improve communication of all kinds and presentation in all forms.

The leaders were enablers, not instructors. Their role was to pose questions, encourage good ideas and to teach skills where the pupils themselves identified a need.

Of course the work had begun many months earlier. Once a team leader had been established, schools were approached to release teachers for the week, as the course runs Monday to Friday. Several meetings took place which established a theme, and the layout of the week was organised. Each teacher took responsibility for one or more activity.

Meanwhile, a general programme and application forms were sent to schools. These were given to pupils who were identified by their schools as being very able.

Past themes have included ice, overseas aid, energy, the sea and Europe. This most recent was "space". During the week problems were set involving rockets, orbits, moon buggies, meteors, space sickness, moon walks etc. The mathematics encountered was very varied and included use of Pythagoras, volume and surface area of cylinders, nets of solids, standard form, velocity, algebraic formulae, geometry of ellipses, momentum, vectors, contours and cross-sections, probability and some simple work on group theory.

Some tasks were practical and some theoretical. Students used spreadsheets, databases, word processing and desktop publishing.

Students worked with a tutor in balanced groups of about 10 girls and boys from a mix of schools. They worked in the groups or individually depending on the tasks.

On the Monday John Baker, teacher of astronomy, addressed students on the theme "From toast to Super Nova", an introduction to ideas about the beginning of the universe. On the Wednesday there was a walk on the Quantocks. This had a dual purpose: some physical activity and fresh air, and gathering some data about walking speeds on different gradients to be used in one of the problems.

On Friday students put up displays of their work and did a presentation in front of parents. Each student's file was assessed and criticised by the tutor and a report written for the school and the parents.

The activities during the week were as follows: Blast off Q Volume, surface area problem about fuel tanks and rocket design. Blast off 2 Q Problems of launching a rocket, maintaining an orbit and reaching destinations at the right time involved lengths of arcs. Up and Away Q escape velocities, Newton's Law. Zero gravity Q colliding meteors, conservation of momentum, resultant velocities and vectors. Moon's orbit Q methods of drawing ellipses, loot of the Moon around the Sun. Moon Buggy Q A fun practical activity with mathematical solids, nets and surface area calculations. Moon Crater Q Students had to use data collected on their walk to discover the best route on the Moon. It involved cross sections and gradient work as well as speed. Black Hole Q simple work on group theory using modulo arithmetic and symmetries Q a bit of Pure really. Deep Space Sickness Q an investigation into the spread of a virus in a space station, using probability.

It was obvious how much the students enjoyed the course, and their level of commitment. At meal times and in their limited leisure time, maths was still an important part of their conversation.

Kilve Court residential education centre, Kilve, Bridgwater, Somerset, TA5 1EA. Tel:01278 741270

Richard Masters teaches at Fairlands Middle School in Somerset

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