Real learning

Ever year I walk away from my last class with my year 11 Information Technology class thinking “well, I can’t possibly top that!”

Every year my new class amazes, educates and inspires me.

This year we had an incredible opportunity to work with Polperro Dolphin Swims to analyse the vast amounts of data they have accumulated over their years working with the dolphins and seals in Port Phillip Bay. This data consists of a page of handwritten notes for every trip the Polperro has been out on for the last 8 years. Notes about weather conditions, dolphin numbers, locations and behaviours. That’s a lot of pages, and a lot of notes. The opportunity to work with this data was thrilling for several reasons.

Firstly the students were able to meet and work with the crew of Polperro, headed by the incomparable Judy Muir. Judy is a fiercely passionate conservationist who works tirelessly for the protection and well-being of the bay and the animals who make it their home. Judy and Marine Biologist Jess Beckham came to talk with my class early in the year about the data and the reasons it is important to record and understand it, and my students were so inspired that some of them started working on their projects months before I even set the assignment.

Secondly the students were able to work with a wealth of data that has never been analysed. Some of them wrote programs to capture and process the data in real time, to make the data more accurate and avoid having to laboriously digitise handwritten data in the future. Some wrote programs to create maps of where the dolphins have been seen and how often. Some wrote programs to graph different elements of the data against each other to look for relationships – for example temperature of the water and how it affects dolphin activity levels.

Essentially what we did was describe the situation and some of the conservation issues to the students, give them access to the data, and then get out of their way. They framed their own questions, then designed their own projects from the ground up to explore their questions and search for answers.

This is genuine scientific research – starting with data and finding patterns and relationships within it. How many kids get to do that in year 11?  The work has real world implications for the creation of sanctuaries where dolphins are most likely to congregate, for rules about the operation of jet-skis (which are frequently fatal to dolphins and need to be kept out of their habitat as an absolute priority), and for a host of other conservation uses. At least 4 of the students are so motivated that they are planning to continue working on their programs, even now that the subject is officially finished.

Like any research there were setbacks, drawbacks, positive results and negative ones, and through it all my students continued to amaze me with their enthusiasm, their motivation and their incredible talent. Each and every one of them ended the year miles ahead of where they began, and I am overwhelmingly proud of them.

Today we went out on Polperro. With exceptional generosity Judy and her crew gifted the class a dolphin and seal watching cruise in appreciation of all the work we have done. It was a fantastic way to end the year together, and the dolphins showed their own appreciation by toying with us – appearing a bit beyond the boat, then disappearing beneath the waves, then popping up right on our bow wave, so close we could almost touch them. It fascinated me that these magnificent creatures were obviously choosing to hang out with us – they are so sleek and fast they could have slipped beneath the waves and eluded us at any time, but they kept popping up to play with us a little more. It was an amazing privilege.

The value to my students of contact with people like the Polperro crew is beyond price. Troy, Ben and Judy ran our tour today. They shared their expertise and their enthusiasm with us, and they made the whole project even more real for the students. They were fabulously enthusiastic and appreciative of everything the kids have achieved. Judy told the class today that they give her hope for the future – that their actions can change the world (and already have). She is so right. These kids hold the future in their hands, and they are not afraid to give it everything they’ve got.

I am incredibly lucky to be a part of it.




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