Sixth formers are being enlisted to join the fight against invaders on the British coastline. Many of the aliens are barely visible to the naked eye: they are marine species arriving in our rockpools, thanks to climate change and other factors.
The Shore Thing is an initiative designed to get sixth formers and volunteers down to the seaside to record the distribution and abundance of living organisms inhabiting rocky coastlines. It is gathering data about non-native marine species and those which indicate climate change - the theme of this year's World Environment Day on June 5, which is concentrating on melting ice sheets.
Not only do sixth formers gain the experience of working as a team on real-world problems, but the techniques used have been specially chosen to focus on skills needed to fulfil the requirements of the science A-level.
This should interest teachers and pupils, because ecology is notoriously difficult to teach effectively, largely for want of meaningful hands-on exercises. Fiona Crouch, Shore Thing's project officer, says: "More than 200 pupils took part in surveys last year, which is fantastic considering we only started in April 2006."
Although the field days take place at different venues, they follow the same basic format, so that pupils all over the country gather comparable data. On the day I attended, we had hands-on practice at identifying seaweeds, top shells and winkles, before being briefed on the afternoon's rocky shore visit.
In the afternoon, the first job is to level the shore using ranging poles to determine the upper, middle and lower regions, before marking out three belt transects (lines) using compasses or global positioning systems. Four quadrats (frames) are placed at each of the three levels of all the transects and the percentage cover of every species of seaweed and animal is determined, with the help of laminated photos and the experts'
By this stage, everybody has become familiar with many of the organisms to be found on the shore, so it is time for the 20-minute timed search. Each pupil searches diligently for one of 21 "indicator species" pictured on laminated cards.
Ideally, schools involved in The Shore Thing will return year after year to the same site, thereby providing time-series data that will help the Marine Biological Association to discover the effect of global warming on the flora and fauna of our rocky shores.
Any school or college teaching ecological techniques as part of A-level can participate in The Shore Thing, although in practice those close to the coast are more likely to get involved. Data subsequently uploaded to the MarLIN (Marine Life Information Network) database by pupils is verified by experts before its official release.
The day's events are useful to all concerned, and it's becoming clear that, though The Shore Thing inspires sixth formers and helps them achieve higher grades, the excitement it generates extends further than this.
Dr Marian Phillips, a science teacher at Great Torrington Community School, is keen to take the scheme further: "We are looking at adopting these A-level methods for our GCSE pupils, because rocky shores are such a great resource. I heard about The Shore Thing project in the media and phoned to join in. It fits in with the new core science, added to which, our top sets get a lot out of joining a national scheme - it carries such kudos."
Professor Steve Hawkins, director of the Marine Biological Association, says: "Seashores are fascinating places for the public to enjoy natural history. The Shore Thing channels enthusiasm for marine life in a way that provides practical help in understanding our changing seas."
Ben Aldiss teaches biology part-time at Thorpe House School in Norfolk. He has set up the School and Farm Wildlife Programme and can be contacted through its email address: firstname.lastname@example.org
What you get The Shore Thing, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and run by the Marine Life Information Network, offers a range of confidence-building resources.
Teachers are offered a day of training on location, followed by an introductory hour in school, during which pupils are familiarised with the methodology and health and safety issues and watch a DVD.
A trained Shore Thing ecologist then guides the group on their field day.
Visit The Shore Thing project at www.marlin.ac.uk/shore_thing.
More resources can be found at the World Environment Day website: www.unep.org/wed/2007/english/About_WED_2007/index.asp.