IMAGINE YOUNG STUDENTS dressing up as seals, flapping their arms and feeling what it is like to move around while carrying a huge layer of blubber. Entertaining though it may be, there is a serious educational purpose. 'Learning should be fun,' says Suzanne Gendron, Director of Zoological Operations and Education at Ocean Park. 'It is important to engage hearts and minds and inspire lifelong learning and an appreciation of nature.' Ms Gendron was speaking to principals and their delegates from more than 50 schools at the launch last Saturday of Hong Kong's Ocean Park Academy and its new education programme offered in alliance with the Books Festival entitled 'Enjoy Learning in Nature'. 'Over 40 per cent of Hong Kong is country parks. But how many people take advantage? Research shows that learning is most effective when students not only see an animal or plant, but when someone tells them about it. Information is good, inspiration is better.' Ocean Park was established in 1977 on more than 870,000 square metres of land in Aberdeen on the south side of the island as a non-profit organisation, and is better known as a place for family fun for Hong Kongers and tourists alike. It has attracted more than three million visitors so far. But it also began with a mandate for conservation, the appreciation of nature and education, and has had tuition programmes for more than 12 years, catering for well in excess of 300,000 students. Ms Gendron stresses the academy sees itself working closely as a partner with Hong Kong schools. 'We want to provide a comprehensive set of learning activities for students of all ages in a way that they can feed back into their own schools using games and contextual, experiential and interactive experiences.' It is in line with more active teaching approaches favoured by the Education and Manpower Bureau. 'Ocean Park is a huge natural classroom.' she says. Seven classrooms are used to support five major programmes using the facilities of the park's 10 specialist faculties that range from aquatic life to engineering, horticulture, research and conservation. Modules combine classroom work with practical observations and data collection in the relevant sections of the park. 'It works very well and the students enjoy their learning a lot,' says Joyce Kwok, education manager and academy head. Younger students focus on tactile, fun experiences to stimulate interest and engagement with the environment, while older students take the experiences to a deeper level and can explore physics in an exciting way. Each session lasts for an hour. The 'Plankton' level is targeted at kindergarten students and offers two programmes that seek to use first-hand experiences to gain a fuller appreciation of the natural world and learn the basics of biology, particularly the ecosystem. One day they may be watching a puppet play and another examining the food a giant panda eats. Primary One to Three students might find themselves with a close encounter with a whale or a dolphin as they pursue one of 12 programmes in the 'Shell' module, designed to increase their awareness of the needs of plants and animals and how they survive in their environment. Older primary students - 'Crabs' - develop deeper understandings of the complex interactions of species with other species and with their surroundings. Secondary students are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own learning in the 'Octopus' programme, and to begin to take initiative as well as deepen their learning about different habitats and biodiversity. But the oldest students have the most exciting options. The innovative Physic in Motion, developed in conjunction with the Chinese University of Hong Kong and EMB, allows them to draw their own conclusions about the physics of machines and animal actions from first-hand experience of the forces. Choices include exploring the relationship between kinetic and potential energy on two of the park's rides and the basic properties of acceleration, weight and inertia on another two or measuring different types of motion on several others. On the roller coaster, for example, a student can don a jacket containing a series of sensors in a data logger making readings that are analysed back in the classroom. Credits are awarded for completion of each element of the programmes. As well as those earned by successfully participating in activities at the park, more can be gained by accessing the academy's web site ( www.oceanpark.com.hk/OPAHK ), by completing follow-up worksheets, or by taking part in voluntary activities or community work. Teachers can earn points for their school by attending half-day sessions to increase their own knowledge of wildlife ecology and environmental protection issues. Schools that register with the academy also get credits that can go towards graduation at the end of the school year. Appointing a course co-ordinator nets several more. But all this comes at a price. Fees range from $50 for the simplest modules for the younger students to $120 for the most advanced. Additional money is required if students wish to stay on after sessions and enjoy the facilities of the park. This is an issue for some. 'I will not bring my students here,' said one principal who asked not to be named. 'It is too expensive.' Others were more positive. Terence Sum Fu-ming, principal of TWGH's Wong See Sum primary school, said: 'Although the teaching rooms are not so big and they need to have more materials for students, I think the academy is a good place to learn. It fits in with the government priority for outside learning and lifelong learning.' Sylvia Mok, vice-principal and co-ordinator of the life-wide learning committee at Leung Shek Chee College, is thinking of involving her Form Four science class and is looking to take advantage of the fact that her Form One class currently studies a unit on Ocean Park. Not everything takes place in the park. For four years, a clean air outreach programme has been taking the message of a healthy environment to the community. Sponsored by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, a large van acts as a mobile resource centre containing a combination of activities and exhibitions to accommodate up to a hundred primary students and teachers. Activities include a CD-Rom presentation and costume dressing. Interactive exhibition boards can be displayed at lesson or break times to reinforce the need for pollution-free air. If things go well, the academy plans to expand. 'There is a possibility of looking at tertiary programmes,' Ms Kwok said. 'We are speaking to several local universities who want to use Ocean Park as a learning environment for things like fish ecology and hotel and catering management.' There were also plans for an Art in the Environment project. 'We are talking to art students about coming in to observe and draw plants and animals and maybe promoting environmental education through art by erecting installations in the park.' Although there were no specific plans to extend the scheme to adults, Ms Kwok pointed out that there were already behind-the-scenes tours available. Some students, teachers or parents may be concerned about cost, but the academy hopes the fun and the excitement of learning will win their seal of approval.