Staying on line for cancer research

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Maureen McTaggart on a world expedition which thousands of schoolchildren will join through the Internet. In a packed classroom, a gaggle of students discuss the finer points of desert as compared to sea sand, while another group try to resuscitate a pile of tired-looking smouldering twigs they hope will stay alight long enough to boil water for tea.

The real action will not be taking place in an inner-city school, but thousands of miles away in the Sahara. And the Internet will allow UK children to mirror the activities of the desert adventure.

Sarah Ewing, currently working as a youth worker, hopes 30,000 schools will jump at the chance to become associate members of Tic.Toc, her Tropic of Cancer expedition. It's an ambitious, sponsored Pounds 1.2 million venture - believed to be the first to circumnavigate the globe on the line of the Tropic of Cancer - which is aiming to raise funds for cancer research.

"It will also be the first expedition to attempt a vehicular crossing of the Sahara from east to west along this line," says Sarah, a seasoned traveller with many years' experience of leading tourists on overland expeditions through Africa.

But Tic.Toc - led by four experienced explorers with up to 80 young people aged between 18 and 21 who will join for different legs - "is not just about 74 days wandering the desert without the luxury of a bath or shower", she says. "It will be a 15-month learning experience."

Through satellite links, Sarah Ewing and her team will invite pupils and their teachers to visit the 18 countries the expedition will pass through, allowing them the opportunity to compare and contrast lifestyles, languages and environmental issues - and encourage cultural understanding.

A successful pilot project, sponsored by Acorn Computers on the West Indian island of Dominica earlier this year, involved teams of schoolchildren studying the migratory habits of sperm whales. Hourly reports prepared by the children were sent to the Tic.Toc Internet Web site and helped her organisation to raise almost Pounds 500,000 for the 15-month expedition. She's now seeking the balance.

The idea for a world expedition emerged while she was trying to raise youngsters' awareness of children's cancer charities - she found that most wanted to be adventurers, identifying with Indiana Jones.

Following discussions with BT's CampusWorld on-line service, she realised that the Internet was the magnet to harness this natural curiosity and bring attention to the charities.

"We knew that if we wanted children to become aware of social issues such as cancer, we had to put it to them in a language they understood through a medium they were comfortable with. And a survey we conducted with hundreds of teachers showed that they would be interested in taking part in a project that involved communicating with schools in different parts of the world."

Using electronic mail (e-mail) to send messages to the Tic.Toc team, students will be able to influence the expedition's route - perhaps suggesting they visit a particular area to collect data or even charting their route. "But there would no point in just following a dotted line," says Ewing. "So we've arranged to spend a week with a school in each of the countries en route, to work on a project in one of the areas of the curriculum. We will send the results of these studies to British schools via computer links on the Internet [through CampusWorld]."

She is confident the journey will be a life-changing experience for many members of the team who have only dreamed about the kinds of places they will visit. "The week-long visits to schools are sure to unearth a variety of projects to look at the mysteries that are dotted around the world.

"For example, we know of a huge environmental centre close to the Pyramids in Egypt where scientists are studying the effect of pollution on the world's oldest monuments. If Anwar in Cairo is studying this and sharing his findings with Johnny in England, the benefits could be far-reaching."

The Tic.Toc database has more than 80 project ideas for primary and secondary schools. And during the journey, teachers will be encouraged to replicate experiments on the same day as the Tic.Toc team and host schools, then compare results.

"Obviously it will be difficult for them to copy the volcanic experiment we want to carry out with Hawaiian schoolchildren, but they can join in scientific assignments at the Epcot centre in Florida."

In order to become members of this global classroom, which opens its doors in Morocco in October, schools must promise to form a link with a similar group in one of the 18 countries, and to develop study projects of mutual value. They must also arrange a fund-raising activity for one of Tic.Toc's designated children's cancer charities. In return, they will have the chance to take part in a draw for donated prizes which include Acorn hand-held Pocket Book computers, a minibus or outdoor weekends.

Much of the journey will be aboard a 22-berth sailing boat. And in its 15 months together, the team will have sailed across two oceans and crossed three continents.

For further information about the Tic.Toc expedition and details of associate expedition membership, please send a large stamped addressed envelope to: The Tic.Toc Expedition, PO Box 9877, London SW10 9ZP. World Wide Web

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