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Breakthrough in the lab

Teachers of science hardly ever use IT, says Angela McFarlane. But there's a lot to be gained by putting byte into your lessons.

So what exactly is a self-respecting science teacher doing in an educational technology show such asBETT 97? Could it be that you've heard that secondary science teachers are among the least likely to use information technology in their teaching, and decided to do something about it? Or perhaps you are one of the few who do, and now want some help showing your colleagues that, along with everything else they are having to cope with, information technology should get a look in.

Just in case you've missed them, let me start by referring you to a few good sources of information on the use of IT in science and why it is "a good thing".

The non-statutory guidance on IT in science, sent free to every school, does give you a flavour of the range of IT applications which are useful. The main themes are developed further in the National Council for Educational Technology (NCET) publication, also available from the Association for Science Education (ASE), Enhancing Science with IT. This contains in-service training materials for developing the use of IT within the department, and guidance for the selection of resources particular to science. There is also an NCET television programme which shows some case studies. Since neither of these are hot off the press, don't count on finding them on the NCET or ASE stands at BETT 97 - order them before you go to Olympia.

Let's assume your school already has a reasonable word processor and spreadsheet in common use, which the science department can also use. Without forgetting how valuable those can be, let's consider the applications with a distinctly scientific leaning. The first one has to be data-logging.

Most secondary schools have something in this line already, so when looking at anything new the first question has to be: will it fit in with what we already do? If most of the teaching in your department is whole-class oriented, it really is more efficient to build up a class set of identical apparatus and software - assuming that what you have is not obsolete. The headache of managing different sets of apparatus can be reduced if you have software which is the same for all the hardware. However, if you have a department that often uses a circus-style of practical there is more leeway.

When choosing data-logging hardware, be very conscious of the "bricks-and-spaghetti" factor. Beware of systems which have innumerable pieces linked together by yards of cable. They take ages to set up, and the leads, no matter how hard you try, end up in a mess. For simplicity and a high degree of functionality, do look at the systems based on a palmtop computer. These are generally neat and tidy, relatively easy to use, and you have the added bonus of a word processor, spreadsheet and graphing package thrown in. Pricing is such that it is possible to equip a department with a class set of 15 without totally breaking the school's IT budget (based on the average annual IT spend ofsecondary schools).

After data-logging, what about multimedia? Surely there must be vast quantities of CD-Roms, produced with the quality of content and editorial of broadcast science programmes, covering the difficult-to-demonstrate aspects of science in an exciting and accessible way? Well yes, theoretically it should be, indeed is, possible to do all these things with multimedia. However, titles which do so are few and far between.

Most are produced not for schools but for the home market. This need not be an insurmountable problem, after all so are the excellent television programmes. But home-oriented CD-Roms on scientific subjects are often disappointing. They fall foul of silly little factual errors, such as using the wrong units of measurement, or saying that the body monitors the level of oxygen in the blood. Of course these are just the kind of inaccuracies science teachers are desperately trying to wean children away from, before they are hammered for them in their public examination paper.

So that's the first tip. Look for information on something you know is tricky, especially if it conflicts with commonly held belief, and see if they've got it right. If you can't find the information, the software is badly designed, or the content is not as extensive as you expected, and if it's wrong, you can stop wasting your time. You could also look through the reviews of science-related CD-Roms on the NCET's Web site. But don't expect too much - the ones they offered for review did not seem to excite the reviewers very much.

So what else might be on offer on-line to the keen science teacher? If you are prepared to do some homework and filter out a lot of dross, there are some very interesting things on the Internet. For example, there is a volcano site, with rather dull information about volcanoes generally, but up-to-the-minute information on any eruptions and an opportunity to post questions to professional vulcanologists. In other words this is a typical Web site - not much use on general reference but great for the dynamic stuff.

Taking IT on board in science may seem like an uphill struggle, and one with little point. But the evidence that tools such as word processing, spreadsheets and data-logging really do enhance children's learning in science is building up steadily. It might be hard at first, but it could eventually make some things much easier.

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