Victorious visionaries

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Rex Walford on the high standard of this year's Young Geographer of the Year competition

A veritable tsunami of entries flowed in for the Young Geographer of the Year competition. Several thousand essays, from primary and secondary, state and independent sectors, deluged the judges. Entrants had been asked to speculate in an informed way about the possible future of the world's seas and oceans.

Of the three age categories (9-12, 13-15, 16-18), the youngest group provided the most imaginative and fanciful suggestions (some seemingly untroubled by the thought of potential practical constraints). Among the senior entries there was sound and impressive work with far-sighted propositions, usually qualified by realistic evaluation of their prospects.

Only in the 13-15 class did entries in general fail to reach the quality hoped for - a sign, perhaps, that the exigencies of testing and the national curriculum in these years are causing pupils to be cautious and pragmatic in their studies and in their thinking.

Generally, entries were literate and grammatical (though the apostrophe was used carelessly in many) and the impact of increasing classroom IT helped the presentation in many instances. However, flashy graphics couldn't disguise wild fantasising or plain inaccuracies. Diagrams taken from the internet were often not well enough interpreted or put in context. The better entries in all classes explicitly sourced their references, went beyond the investigation of a few obvious texts and sites, and showed evidence of concern, reflection and imagination.

In the senior class (where a larger word limit allowed more flexibility), the best entries not only attempted to explain and analyse, but to prioritise problems and probe the feasibility of futuristic solutions.

Opinions differed about what proportion of the world's population lived "near" the sea (estimates ranged from 23 to 66 per cent), but there was more agreement on the need for stronger international control of the maritime environment - even to the extent of a proposed "ocean tax" on sea-going vessels.

There was a torrent of statistics - a potential two million megawatts of power are imprisoned in the waves, we were told, and 80 million tons of fish are supposedly caught each year. Some were imaginatively tweaked - you can compare the area of the world's oceans with 87 million football pitches or 14,700 United Kingdoms, and its volume with four billion bathtubs. We were left awash with acronyms, including LIMPET (Land-Installed Marine-Powered Energy Transformers) and OTEC (Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion).

But what counted more, in the minds of the judges, was the ability to blend good communication and presentation with accuracy, comprehensiveness, genuine research and flair in thoughtful projection about the future.

The major dangers identified were pollution ("Are the seven seas our salvation or our sewer?" speculated one), the possible destruction of all coral reefs and the depletion of fish stocks. Conversely, the potential of the oceans to satisfy world energy needs through wave power and tidal power was often explored thoroughly. It was also frequently suggested that we could solve the world's fresh-water shortages by building more desalinisation plants, though the economic viability of this was usually unexplored. Less attention was paid to the possibility of future settlement on the surface of the oceans or in the depths, though one junior entrant saw building under the oceans not as futuristic living, but as practical refuge from the effects of climate change, akin to wartime shelters in the Blitz.

Occasionally, ideas ran out of control - the few who wanted to "drain the oceans" to allow more living space for the world's population had clearly not thought through the consequences; likewise with a proposal to freeze them in order to provide more opportunity for winter sports. One pessimistic 13-15 entrant opined: "Given the result of most attempts of mankind to improve the world so far, the best thing we can do for the world's oceans is just to leave them alone."

Authorities cited to enliven and support arguments varied from Arthur C Clarke to the Babylonians ("who looked on the world as a vast round mountain rising from the midst of a universal sheet of water"). One prize-winning entry began with a quote from Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors (II.i): "Men, more divine, I Lords of the wide world, and wild watery seas", while subsequently casting doubt on the proposition.

Some entries used personal experience. Those who had been on family sailing holidays had a catalogue of stories: one vivid vignette described the unwholesome dumping of rubbish into the sea off Alderney, viewed at close-quarters by the horrified inhabitants of a passing yacht.

It was a stimulating experience to read the best entries, and an indication that pondering future world scenarios not only broadens minds, but should be an integral part of the school curriculum for the 21st century.

Senior Geographer of the Year (16-18)

Claire Swienton, South Wilts Grammar School, Salisbury

Young Geographer of the Year (13-15)

Georgia-Rose Bijster, Pocklington School, York

Junior Geographer of the Year (12 and under)

Sam Turner, St Thomas More School, Tyne amp; Wear

* The Young Geographer of the Year competition is organised by Geographical magazine with the Royal Geographical Society and sponsored by The TES. The judges are Judith Mansell, education officer at the RGS; Rex Walford, Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge; Mary Cruickshank, assistant editor, TES Teacher magazine; and Sarah James, Geographical magazine. The winning entries will appear on The TES website

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