Pupils in Pole position

Sixth-formers have created a Web site to follow the footsteps of a polar expedition. By Dorothy Walker
The history of Arctic exploration is peppered with stories of brave men who have died lost, cold and alone, as rescue parties searched the vast expanses of ice. But when David Hempleman-Adams sets out tomorrow to lead a walking party to the Magnetic North Pole, he will not be lost, not even for a minute. Thanks to satellite technology and a bunch of enthusiastic schoolchildren in the Midlands, anyone who logs on to the Internet can follow his progress every yard of the way from Canada's Resolute Bay to the Pole.

Pupils at Heart of England School in Solihull were offered the chance to build the Web site for the Ultimate Challenge Expedition last month, after their IT inspector sat next to one of the explorers at a dinner.

Although the school has a reputation for making good use of computers, most of these machines are archaic BBC Micros and, until three weeks ago, few pupils or teachers had even seen the Internet. Yet, from a standing start, the Web site went online in the space of a week. As the IT co-ordinator, Bernadette Pryzbek, says: "It certainly was the ultimate challenge for us."

The school's core team of Webmasters consists of a dozen sixth-formers, plus a cool 12-year-old called Michael, recruited late in the project when he happened to mention he had "played around building Web pages" at home.

The team's technical spokesman, Chris, says: "We hadn't got a clue how to do it at first - but we learned."

The challenge began on Friday 15 March, when a shiny new Pentium 75 machine arrived from MJN Computers, whose managing director, John Simnett, is on the expedition. BT installed a link to CampusWorld, its Internet service for education. Chris and Darren, the school's IT technician, got it all working over the weekend.

"We then spent Monday using CompuServe's Home Page Wizard stuff," says Chris. It was hopeless, because it wouldn't do complex things. So Darren ordered a book about HTML (HyperText Markup Language), which arrived on Wednesday."

But the shrewd sixth-formers took a faster route to learn HTML: they downloaded other people's Web pages, and looked at the source code that was used to build them. To do this, you just click on "view source" in your Web browser.

Two days later, the Web site was up and running, complete with background information on polar exploration. "The basic HTML stuff - page headings, text and hotlinks - is quite easy," says Chris's classmate Jonathan. More complicated, he says, is presenting the daily journal of the expedition's progress. "Chris had the idea of putting up a map of the route, with a hotspot marking where the explorers are each day. Click on the hotspot, and you can read that day's diary entry. We're still working on that one."

The expedition will haul a sled-load of the latest communications equipment, and will beam live TV pictures back to the BBC via the Inmarsat satellite. Diary entries will be e-mailed to Solihull from base camp at Resolute Bay, where a computer operator will be in constant touch with the explorers by radio and satellite phone.

"They'll send information as often as they can," says Chris. "As long as there is something interesting to say - not just `Oh, it's cold.' " Other schools on CampusWorld are being invited to come up with questions, which Heart of England School will filter and forward to the expedition.

The pupils' research for the Web site has covered geography, geology, history, weather and endangered species. Michael has put together two pages on previous polar expeditions, with hypertext links to other sites. His friend Nick says: "I'm researching polar bears. John Simnett has asked us to make a stamp in the shape of a pawprint, to frighten the other explorers."

Trickiest job is getting to grips with the North Poles, of which there are three. The expedition is not going to the Geographic North Pole (the top of the Earth's axis); nor is it heading for the Geo-magnetic North Pole, where Hempleman-Adams went in 1992. The goal is the Magnetic North Pole, a moving target that shifts 10 miles north-west every year. The young researchers aren't sure where it is at the moment ("Bathurst Island?"), but have made it a priority to find out.

The school has had to rely heavily on sponsors for equipment. "We could also get money for putting up Web pages for local businesses," says Chris. "I read that some Internet companies charge pounds 500!" However, teachers feel that this would be taking on too much.

So far, the only unforeseen difficulty has been in publicising the site on the Internet itself: the process of registering with any of the Web "search engines" takes six weeks.

The expedition flew out to Canada on Friday, and begins the 350-mile polar trek tomorrow. The party includes 10 novices, selected after a rigorous programme of physical and mental tests. Weather - and polar bears - permitting, they are expected to plant a Heart of England School flag at their destination on 20 May.

After the excitement is over, will the intrepid kids in Solihull carry on using the Internet? "Yes - if they don't take the computer off us," says Chris.

Web site URL:

http://www.campus.bt.com/CampusWorld/pub/ Ultimate-Challenge/in dex.html

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