Getting new help from old 'Scientists'

Angela McFarlane

New Scientist on CD-Rom, CD-Rom for IBM and compatible (RM) computers, Pounds 495 per annum or Pounds 295 per annum for schools. Each disc contains five years' worth of issues and is updated every three months. Bowker-Saur, Maypole House, Maypole Road, East Grinstead, W Sussex RH1901 HH. Tel: 01342 330100

There are probably countless school libraries and science departments with collections of back issues of magazines and journals. These publications are packed with useful resource material which can provide excellent support for A-level and GCSE students, especially during investigations. The problem, of course, is locating the relevant information and so it is no surprise that New Scientist, with its range of articles on anything from wind farms in England and Wales to abnormalities in schizophrenic brains, is now available on CD-Rom.

The electronic version makes it easy to find up-to-date material on a vast range of topics. The search facilities are powerful, if a little clunky to use. Once you have found articles you are interested in there are several features which make it easy to access the information.

First you can choose from a wide range of fonts in which to view the text. This is a simple feature which will make the resources easier for many visually-impaired readers. Every "hit" word from your search is highlighted, so there can be no confusion as to why the article has been selected. This is helpful when the references to your choice of search word are peripheral to the substance of the piece. You can also skim through from "hit" to "hit", a useful trick which helps you determine quickly if it is worth making a more serious study of the content. That should encourage students to develop critical skills when selecting sources.

You need to be a competent Windows user to get on with the software, as it is not always clear when you are dealing with the database as a whole, or a subset selected by a previous search. This will make life complicated for teachers trying to support students having difficulties.

Looking at the CD-Rom of the New Scientist from April 1989 to September 1994, many issues relating to the differences between print and electronic media are highlighted. For example, the graphics from the magazine were prepared to fit in an A4 or A3 spread, which has to fit a rigid screen space. The result is that you end up scrolling to see the parts of the image which have been left out. The information database is also that of the magazine, which can make navigating awkward, especially if you are not fully familiar with the magazine layout. There are elaborate facilities to help you search by issue, but it is hard to see how these are relevant in a hypermedia environment. Rifling through back issues impedes the fluidity of navigation which the electronic format should encourage. "Browsing" here does not equate to "clicking through" and seeing what catches your eye. Rather it involves using one of a variety of indices.

This could be useful in that it makes it less likely that students will be distracted by something irrelevant to the current topic. It may increase the time on task, but it will also lessen the chance of their noticing a highly valuable article which offers an interesting and relevant tangent to the current topic.

If you cancel your subscription you have to return all discs. The company says it will waive this condition for schools

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