Spread their wings

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Jack Kenny sees an award-winning CD-Rom made by students about a butterfly farm

For 15-year-old students to author a CD-Rom is excellent. For them to make it with style, skill and to a commercial brief is an impressive achievement. And that is exactly what a group of Midlands students have done with their CD-Rom about a butterfly farm.

"The Food and Farming Challenge", run annually, enables companies large and small to offer students real problems to solve. A challenge was issued to all schools in the Warwickshire area. Martin Jewiss, education officer at the Butterfly Farm in Stratford-upon-Avon asked schools to produce a CD-Rom illustrating the work of the farm. The only constraint was the target audience - seven to 14. Alison Duff and Mark Bragg from Kingshurst City Technology College, Birmingham, entered the challenge in September last year and set up a team of five students who worked in their own time between September and March.

Six months later the team from Kingshurst stood on the stage at the Royal Show in Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, and received the trophy. The CD they have produced is remarkable in a number of ways. Like most people connected with information and communications technology (ICT), over the last few years I have seen a number of CDs produced by children and many produced professionally. There are commercial companies which cannot equal the finish and polish of this disc. Above all, it fills a niche. If you want to know about butterflies, spiders and moths then this is the disc that you go to.

The realities of multimedia production were soon picked up by the students. Wanting some video footage of butterflies, they approached the BBC and were disturbed to find that the cost would be Pounds 300 for 20 seconds. They took a video camera to the butterfly farm in Stratford and made their own. One sequence that they particularly wanted to capture was the emergence of a butterfly from the pupa. It took a couple of patient days to get it.

You do not have to make any allowances for the age and inexperience of the creators. The discdoes not pioneer imaginative approaches but it is a commercial job. It moves sweetly, clearly showing ways through the information on offer.

The students used Authorware, a program normally considered too difficult for young authors, but Jenny Griffiths and Wayne Merricks, who were responsible for the programming, felt that most people of their age could come to terms with it.

The other thing they learnt was the sheer grind necessary to get it right. The students' records and logs scrupulously record all their efforts and reflections. The creation of multimedia hits many curriculum targets in a completely natural way, and the students are extremely articulate about what they learned. Darius Croxton, a student, made the point that up to last year he had worked largely on his own. He was sure that the benefits of team working had extended and challenged him. Jenny Griffiths was clear that collaborative methods were closer to what they would find when they went to work.

They did not test the disc with the target group but they have observed how primary school children use it. "I think we got it right," said Nadine Berry. The children did not have any difficulty finding their way around. They were also keen to see how well the games and the puzzles that they had built in were used.

Valerie Bragg, principal of Kingshurst, the first CTC in the UK, is keen to encourage the use of new technology. "Our next CD-Rom, which we are working on, is for Bass. It will look at the whole subject of brewing. It is surprising how much of the national curriculum can be approached through that subject: there is science, history, geography, English and maths. We challenge the students in an atmosphere that is about freedom and trust. We are not about telling pupils that you can't do that, you're not old enough. Nothing is closed. We are aiming for a university type of atmosphere where they will surprise us with what they can achieve. Some of these students will go on to do GNVQs or the International Baccalaureate which we do instead of A-levels."

Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole process is that pupils were working in a realistic business context, with the appropriate disciplines.

Final approval goes to the client. Martin Jewiss, education officer at the Butterfly Farm, says that he made a conscious decision to treat the students as business partners. "I am extremely happy with the disc. The information is specific and more detailed than anything that we could find commercially. We may well include it in our information packs and we will certainly have it for use in the visitors' area. We are about 30 miles down the road from the school and they came here half a dozen times to film and research and I have worked with them at the school. As far as we are concerned, the whole enterprise has been a complete success."

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