Entertainment counts

Peter Horsfall finds low achievers being turned into mathematicians

The fabric of the universe has been breached. Across the trans-dimensional barriers of time and space, six mad scientists hold the key to the future of time and space and everything.

"Why are they mad?", you ask. Well wouldn't you be a bit angry if you were kidnapped by an evil overlord and imprisoned in a dank cell, your only hope of release dependent on the successful completion of a series of scientific challenges by an intrepid acolyte who is not doing too well at GCSE science?

The effects of the damage are already being felt on Earth. The production of Scouse at the Everyman Theatre, on Liverpool's Hope Street, explores the tragi-comic consequences of the city's declaration of independence from the United Kingdom: could this become a terrifying reality in the overlord's scheme?

Across Hope Street at the Learning Methods Unit of Liverpool John Moores University, a declaration has been made which, while more politically realistic, promises to affect the community in just as visionary a way. The UNITED project aims to achieve no less than the establishment of Merseyside as a beacon of excellence in the field of multimedia technology development.

One of UNITED's ways of achieving this goal is by enhancing school-leavers' chances of getting a job, through the development, production and use of interactive multimedia learning materials.

The vision has resulted in the secondment of a team of maths and science teachers to work in close collaboration with the design team based in the unit. No computer nerds these, but a stalwart crew with a real understanding of students' needs and the dedication needed to push the technology to the limit.

The product of this union will be a series of interactive CD-roms that will be distributed free to Liverpool schools.

The target group for the four curriculum CD-Roms now in production are low-attaining pupils at key stage 4. These children may have poor motivation for learning in a traditional context; they may have showed poor attendance, and failed to acquire basic skills and knowledge at key stage 3. The multimedia learning packages will be developed to encourage flexible use, and the practice and mastery of basic skills and concepts. The idea is to make them so entertaining that pupils will want to work with the discs over and over again.

In its initial stage, the project has focused on numeracy, using the skills of teachers in Liverpool working with multimedia designers from the Learning Methods Unit. They have developed materials that target key areas in numerical competence, essential to employment.

A key issue was selecting a framework for presenting the educational content of the discs. To promote maximum interactivity, while keeping the tasks enjoyable, the team developed a learning game which required pupils to repeat basic, but important, tasks.

The first numeracy title was Maths Worlds - Number Planet. In trials with pupils, many voted this game "better than maths". Many soon learnt the "tricks" they thought they needed to make it easier to play - which, in fact, were the "maths" skills it was hoped they would learn.

The interactive game format had other advantages, too. Pupils were able to work at the tasks on their own and free the teachers so that they could prepare and follow up the ideas and activities used in the programs. A free-access method of moving through the game allows the pupils to make discoveries at their own pace. These factors mean the program can be used either as a general resource or as a tool controlled more closely by teachers, for example, to introduce new topics.

The project is now in its second phase. Now science subjects are the focus for product development, the aim being to provide interactive multimedia learning materials for key stage 4 level. From the experience gained from the development of Maths Worlds, the team will incorporate even more state-of-the-art gaming features, alongside serious educational challenges.

Enter the six mad scientists!

You can find out more about the UNITED project from the Web site at http:lmu.livjm.ac.ukunited Peter Horsfall is a science teacher at Breckfield Comprehensive School in Liverpool, seconded to UNITED

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