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Boldly go for new tales

magazine article | Published in TES Newspaper on 14 February, 2003 | By: Eileen Armstrong

Eileen Armstrong selects fiction to get key stages 2-4 thinking about science

Fiction based on science fact has evolved beyond the stereotypes of little green creatures and sub-Star Trek plots. The fiction shelves now offer enough insights and excitement to lead even science-phobic students to Eureka! moments and improve literacy at the same time. What more can you ask?

Lesson starters: Read a short story aloud to start or finish a topic. Michael Rosen's Centrally Heated Knickers (Puffin £4.99) offers 101 poems about science, many of which suggest quick activities or discussion points. John Agard's Points of View from Professor Peekaboo (Faber £4.99) has lots to say about the effects of science on everyday life, from environmentally friendly feet to ET flu, while On a Camel to the Moon and other poems about journeys by Valerie Bloom (Belitha Press £4.99, paperback) is sure to generate discussion on alternative forms of transport. See The Works 2 by Brian Moses and Pie Corbett (Macmillan Children's Books £5.99) for funny factual poems about satellites, cells, snails and more.

Key concepts: Russell Stannard's Uncle Albert is an authoritative and entertaining teacher who uses fantasy, dialogue, cartoon and comedy to explain even the trickiest concepts. Ask Uncle Albert: 100 Tricky Science Questions Answered (Faber £4.99) can help achieve cross-curricular literacy targets. It's also a gift for starting topics (from atoms to volcanoes; cloning to colour spectrums) and for generating ideas for interactive display and role-play. Uncle Albert stories cover space, quantum physics, black holes and time (which Philip Pullman investigates in more depth in Clockwork, Corgi £4.99).

Stannard's latest novel, Dr Dyer's Academy (Faber £4.99), debunks more than 50 common physics misconceptions in an imaginative (if slightly old-fashioned) tale of a boarding school where "wrong science" is taught and students are trained to delay scientific progress, supposedly to save the world. This potentially confusing story needs careful handling, but it's great for a gifted and talented group which can demonstrate and disprove "wrong science" and debate the use, misuse and media reporting of scientific progress. Even such relatively mundane topics as recycling and waste management can be brought to life by Ted Hughes' The Iron Man or its companion The Iron Woman (Faber Children's Classics £4.99 each). Anne Halam's spine-chilling The Fear Man (Orion Children's Books £3.99) describes a terrifyingly real ghost composed of recycled rubbish. Make plants matter with Green Fingers by Paul May (Corgi £4.99), a positive look at gardening with a template for journal-keeping, or take students on an unforgettable virtual field trip through the Amazon rainforest with Eva Ibbotson's award-winning Journey to the River Sea (Macmillan Children's Books £4.99).

Ted Hughes's beautifully-crafted creation fables in How the Whale Became (new hardback edition illustrated by Jackie Morris, Faber £17.99) will stimulate interest in the origins and future of the animal kingdom, while David Almond's magical Skellig (Hodder Children's Books £5.99) takes a more oblique but fascinating look at flight and owls.

Inventions and inventors: This is a good route into the creative aspects of science. Geraldine McCaughrean's selection of short, snappy true-life historical stories, Movers, Shakers and Record Breakers (Orion £4.99) includes tales about Stevenson's rocket, oil-spill disasters and the first grave-robbing forensic scientists. Bob Fouke's cartoon-style Who's Who in Science and Technology (Hodder Children's Books £5.99) describes in more depth 300 of "the most fascinating people of all time" and how they cracked "the most difficult questions ever asked".

Encourage students to explore the materials, forces and energy used by fictional inventors. Norman Hunter's Professor Branestawm was the first and most disaster-prone. The books are out of print, but you might still find a Red Fox "summer reading collection" of the stories, published in 2000 (£4.99). The innovations of Frankie Stein in Roy Apps's stories (Hodder Wayland) are well intentioned but badly planned and encourage analysis of the acceptable limits of experimentation. More recently, Vernon Bright, the creation of the two Steves (Barlow and Skidmore), stars in an adventure series on the theme of light (Puffin £3.99 each).

Don't forget Harry Potter: entire schemes of work could be written around the science of flying cars, potion-making, herbal medicines and the nutritional benefits of Every Flavour Beans. Roald Dahl's Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Puffin £5.99), with his complete-meal chewing gum and hot ice cream for cold days, is an even more teacher-friendly resource for studying diet. Anne Fine's The Chicken Gave it to Me (Egmont £3.99), funny but bitterly acerbic, is set in a battery farm where humans are intensively reared by aliens and saved by a spokeschicken on TV.

Science ethics: Fiction, like science, starts with "what-if" questions to engage intellect, imagination and the emotions, encouraging empathy through credible characters and allowing readers to debate the issues and reach a conclusion.

For a fun introduction, read Spike Milligan's poem "The Hipporhinostrichcow" (in A Children's Treasury of Milligan, Virgin Publishing £9.99). The ugly side of genetic engineering is portrayed in Melvin Burgess' Bloodtide (Penguin £5.99), a challenging, futuristic fable of war, dictatorship and strange half-men manufactured from a mixture of animals. Peter Dickinson's Eva (Corgi £4.99) offers a more accessible insight into scientific and animal experimentation (after a car accident, Eva's brain is kept alive in the body of a chimpanzee).

Operation Timewarp by Kate Reid (Orion £4.99) tackles genetic modification for younger readers as three friends fast-forward into the future to stop activity at a GM base. Clone by Malcolm Rose (Scholastic Press £5.99) sees the horrifying effect on family life as Dad attempts to clone the first human while the chilling Dr Franklin's Island by Ann Halam (Orion £4.99) continues the cloning and species-identity theme at KS3 as three teenagers, sole survivors of a plane crash on a tropical island, become the subjects of experiments.

Terrance Dicks' Eco-Crash (Piccadilly Press £6.99) transports readers into a 2015 London transformed by global warming and populated by mutant rats. Hunting for their parents, Sarah and Tom come face to face with clones of themselves.

Novels can open up discussion on the limits of medical intervention and related issues, starting with George's Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl (Puffin £4.99). Michael Morpurgo's Cool! (Collins hardback, £9.99) is useful for exploring alternative treatments through the story of Robbie, in hospital after an accident, who can only smell and hear. Anne Fine builds a similar scenario for older readers in Up on Cloud Nine (Corgi £3.99), as a teenage boy recalls the life of his critically injured friend.

The abuse of medical research forms the basis of Neil Arksey's futuristic football adventure Playing on the Edge (Puffin £4.99) in which clubs battling for world domination employ performance-enhancing drugs.

Understanding of brain dysfunction and mental illness can be enhanced by sensitively told stories such as Helena Pielichaty's Jade's Story (Oxford University Press £4.99), The Illustrated Mum by Jacqueline Wilson (Corgi £4.99) and Rosie Rushton's Tell Me I'm OK Really (Piccadilly £6.99), which clearly outline symptoms, treatments and the effect on carers and family.

Melvin Burgess's The Ghost Behind The Wall (Puffin £4.99) and Daughter by Ishbel Moore (Oxford University Press £4.99) show the devastating effects of Alzheimer's disease through strong portrayal of child-adult relationships and flashes of humour. Finally, Uncle Albert comes up trumps again with Here I Am! (Faber £4.99) - a lively series of conversations between Sam and God.

Eileen Armstrong is head of learning resources at Cramlington Community High School, Northumberland, which has science college status and is starting a series of community science days later this year


* To make the most of science stories, read extracts aloud. Current research shows the best learning happens when students are relaxed with all parts of the brain alert. Listening to a story engages the thinking left-brain intellect, right-brain imagination, and middle brain emotions to enable scientific understanding to happen almost by osmosis!

* Encourage students to build a collection of science-related fiction and devise a means of "testing" each book: define its identifying characteristics, decide subcategories and groups - space travel? alternate realities? alien life? time travel? Compare group results.

* Organise monthly mini-debates around the scientific theme of a story and analyse the author's standpoint if students have read the whole text.

* Keep a science story box in the lab, or teach a science lesson in the library.

* Stage student-voted "science fiction" book awards.

* Invite the librarian to a science lesson.

* Hold science-story-and-sandwich lunches at which science teachers talk about or read from books that have inspired them, or hold a debate, as above.

* Give brains a break mid-lesson with a "drop everything and read" (a science story) session.

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