Sustainable kids share a virtual classroom

By Tiffany Hoy and Beth Carter 26 July 2012
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A conference using new technologies is connecting students to experts in science and sustainability.

FROM FROGS, BUSH TUCKER and energy saving solutions, to kitchen gardens, Tassie Devils and sustainable seafood, a multitude of topics – taught by the experts – has been made available to even the remotest schools in Australia. And it’s all thanks to the use of interactive technologies that are expanding the classroom beyond the chalkboard.

More than 11,000 students and teachers in NSW plugged in to about 80 presentations delivered by expert presenters at places such as Taronga Zoo, the Australian Museum, OceanWatch Australia and the Australian Reptile Park – and Australian Geographic –  for the Learning for Sustainability Video Conference Festival, which ran over May and June. Now in its third year, the festival aims to get kids sharing ideas about sustainability and environmental issues.

The festival also hosted student-run workshops, written and delivered by the students themselves. “We were trying to come up with a way for schools all over the state to share their real life sustainability initiatives in their school grounds,” says Patrick Spiers, a teacher at the Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre, who helped plan the festival. “The main thing was sharing sustainability stories.”

Technology helps classrooms connect to experts

Video conferencing technology, including cameras, microphones, projectors and interactive whiteboards, installed in every NSW public school as part of the Connected Classrooms Program, allowed the kids to chat with experts face-to-face, and discuss environmental issues in their own language.

“In video conferencing, you can have authentic conversations with questions and answers between presenting students or a presenting expert,” says Patrick. “It’s not just being receptive of facts, of somebody saying something – a school audience needs to relate it to their own experience.”

The festival aims to change attitudes, not just communicate facts. “Sustainability isn’t an open and shut case,” says Patrick. “It’s more a way of thinking about how to move towards a future where you’re being more clever about what you’re doing.”

Students in years three to six at Boomi Public School, a small agricultural school near the Queensland-NSW border, took part in The Great Pacific Garbage Patch video conference, presented by environmentalist Tim Silverwood.

Tim sailed 500km from Hawaii to Vancouver in 2011 to study a region in the North Pacific Ocean where a huge amount of plastic rubbish is accumulating. “He showed us pictures of it and what effects it has on wildlife and humans,” says teacher Mick Collins. “We’ve got kids now that talk about the ‘Take 3’ philosophy or principle – you pick up three pieces of rubbish wherever you go. It got through to them, but they’re a clean bunch anyway. There’d be a big scandal if someone dropped a piece of rubbish here!”

Video conferencing is a valuable tool for schools in remote areas, says Mick. “They provide opportunities the kids otherwise wouldn’t have, and at a reasonable expense. It opens up their eyes and lets them see things that we otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to see or be involved in,” he says.

And it’s not just about sustainability; it’s also about building connections between classrooms in different parts of the country. “We can communicate with other small schools around the state, reading books together and sharing projects, and just talking to each other about where we live and what we do in comparison to other areas,” says Mick.

City schools also stand to gain by learning from their rural counterparts, adds Patrick. “There’s an obvious need and hunger for this sort of thing in remote areas, but it’s not just a one-way thing. Those students in the bush have perspectives and skills which are valuable and will illuminate things for the urban children as well.”