Host with the most rouses new scientists

Dorothy Walker

Management of class activities is the key to good ICT says Richard Heppell... and that can mean holding your own version of Who wants to be a millionaire? Dorothy Walker met him.

Good ICT doesn't mean having 25 computers in a classroom - you might have only one. It is good management of class activities which makes for good ICT." So says Richard Heppell, advanced skills teacher in the science faculty at Beauchamp College in Oadby, Leicestershire. Earlier this year, when he won the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency's (Becta) ICT in Practice Award for best use of ICT in Secondary subject teaching, he demonstrated how well the approach works.

Heppell first discovered the power of ICT in 1991, while qualifying as a science teacher. No stranger to computers, having studied information technology after taking a zoology degree, it was not until he was half way through teacher training that Heppell suddenly realised its potential for learning. "One day a tutor opened a cupboard and produced a data-logging kit, complete with a range of sensors. It struck me that this was exactly the kind of thing we should be using in science teaching," he says.

The following day was earmarked for teaching practice, and he seized the opportunity to put the new-found tools to the test in the classroom. Heppell and his class designed an experiment to investigate claims that a well-known brand of battery outlasted other brands, setting up light sensors to measure the output from battery-powered lightbulbs.

He says: "We left it running for several days, and that created an air of suspense. When they arrived for their next lesson, the students asked how the batteries had performed. They were really interested in what we were going to find out. I thought: 'Crikey - how often does that happen?' It was a revelation. I then realised how important a tool ICT could be."

The following year Heppell took up a full-time post in science at Beauchamp College. The faculty had one PC, a laptop and "a willingness to take ICT forward". With limited funds, teachers had to think hard about how to employ their precious computing power effectively. "Today we are well endowed with resources," says Heppell. "But it was in those early days that we formalised our thinking on what would really work in the classroom."

Heppell drew on his knowledge of business software to introduce spreadsheets into the lab. Instead of chalking their results on a board, young scientists entered them into a spreadsheet, which was programmed to do a running calculation of overall figures and plot them on a graph. Even the least able mathematician now had access to the scientific findings. Students began to realise the impact that one person's work could have on the overall picture, as the graph could alter dramatically with the addition of a new result.

Heppell says: "For the first time they began to take an interest in other students' results. It became more important to get things right - they saw that results mattered. We only used one computer in a corner, but it had a big impact."

Another simple innovation was the use of word processors to produce captions for posters. Rather than spending an entire double lesson laboriously hand-writing the copy to explain the carbon or nitrogen cycle, students could simply type it in and print it out, without being side-tracked from the science.

In 1996 Beauchamp won Technology College status, together with a "marvellous" ICT budget. The science faculty installed a network, and opted for PCs on trolleys, easily wheeled wherever they were required. "We wanted to avoid building a computer suite," says Heppell. "Our philosophy is that ICT should be right here in the classroom, not an add-on."

The next stage was to arm teachers with laptops, and build a projector into each classroom ceiling. Today teachers prepare presentations at home, simply plugging the laptop into the projector to present to class next day. Heppell says: "We can drop into ICT for perhaps two or three minutes in a lesson, without spending the entire lesson setting it up."

He believes it is vital to be able to switch very quickly between media. "Students live in a multimedia age, zapping between different formats, and we have to follow that in how we teach. "One minute we might be dissecting the heart, then flipping over to the projector to watch a Web-based animation of how the heart contracts. We might switch to a spreadsheet to collate data on the students' heart rates, and finally watch a video about someone having a heart attack."

After a biology lesson, students often compete in a session of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "They love TV quizzes," says Heppell, "so why not bring that into the classroom? It is such a good way of revising a lesson." Heppell created the software that manages the questions, pulling them up one by one on the classroom projector as the suspense builds. Other teachers can add their own questions, and Heppell has created a version for the French department. Media attention in his efforts took Heppell by surprise: "We even featured on Page 3 of The Sun," he says. "And I attracted controversy because I award sweets as prizes, although no-one has yet scooped the pound;1 million box of chocolates!" He is adamant that ICT will never replace the need for an enthusiastic teacher. "You cannot inspire students by sitting them down at a computer all afternoon.

"I am still the passionate teacher at the front of the class, explaining to the best of my ability the things I believe in. And these powerful tools make my job easier."

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Dorothy Walker

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