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Down to earth?

METALS, MINERALS AND MATERIALS: INVESTIGATING BORAX. Age group: 13-16. First copy free, additional packs Pounds 3.50; additional sets of 15 booklets Pounds 4. RTZ Corporation plc, Intermail Limited, 10 Fleming Road, Newbury RG13 2DE. WASTE AWAY: BIOTECHNOLOGY. Age group: 12-14.

CLEAN SCIENCE: ACTIVITY PACK. Age group: 11-14. Pounds 6 each from the Chemical Industry Education Centre, University of York, Heslington, York YO1 5DD.

CLUES FROM THE ROCKS:BASIC EARTH SCIENCE. Age group: 11-14. Free from Shell Education Service, Shell UK Limited, Shell-Mex House, Strand, London WC2 0DX

Sponsored materials raise important questions. Graham Hart reports

Should teachers be suspicious of sponsored publications? Of course. But does this mean that sponsored publications are of little value? Of course not. This batch presents interesting examples, and raises a few interesting questions.

Investigating Borax is announced as the first in a new series of GCSE resource packages for schools, written for science students aged 13-16. It comes from RTZ, better known from its past as Rio Tinto Zinc. The package comprises a colourful 16-page student's book and a clutch of single sheets, some for teachers, some containing role-play exercises. Role playing and an empathetic approach (taking the student through time to witness developments "first hand") are the main ways of conveying the information - the discovery, manufacture and uses of boron compounds.

Boron compounds, among other uses, are found in reinforced plastics, ceramic glazes, sports equipment, detergents, fertilisers and insecticides. All the advantages of the compounds are detailed, and the disadvantages touched upon but not detailed. RTZ branding is low-key throughout. Importantly, national curriculum links are itemised.

The same plus points can be made for the two publications from the Chemical Industry Education Centre. Furthermore, unlike RTZ, it states its interest in the publication process. The Chemical Industry Education Centre aims to improve mutual understanding between schools and the chemical industry, so that teachers and industrialists have a clearer insight into each other's needs.

Clean Science and Waste Away are both shrink-wrapped, hole-punched collections of teacher's notes, activity pages and (for Waste Away) OHP masters. Clean Science deals not with environmentally friendly practices but with the cleaning power and efficiency of washing agents. Waste Away investigates the problems of industrial waste disposal.

In both publications the practical exercises will be easy to stage, and a lot of fun too. The resources aimed at students are simple to follow and equipment requirements are kept to a minimum. Both packs make it easy for students to relate their bench-top experiences to industrial-scale problems. Both present a rather cleaner-than-clean image of science in the service of human kind.

Of all the materials Shell Education Service's publication, Clues from the Rocks, is the most impressively produced. A 52-page information book contains some extremely high-quality graphics, matching a clear and concise narrative. This is supplemented by some extremely helpful data sheets and a handful of activities and games. Although Clues from the Rocks provides a comprehensive grounding in earth science for the targeted 11-14 age range, the pack ultimately deals with Shell's use of the clues, namely mineral exploration and exploitation.

Environmental problems are introduced but, rather disarmingly, left as problems, as if Shell has no part to play in either their creation or solution. But we know where the pack comes from and we make our judgments accordingly. Like the other resources, the writers have gone to great lengths to stress curricular links. They have also gone far beyond the call of duty in producing straight information which will rival anything available in commercially-produced textbooks.

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