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Measure for pleasure

Sensors can reveal a world of scientific wonder, says Roger Frost.

Scientific discoveries are rare these days, but when, a couple of years back, Department for Education funds helped schools to equip themselves with computer sensors, some discoveries were made. Teachers discovered how sensors helped pupils to understand those tricky sciencey things like "changes" and "cooling curves". In one school pupils connected a sensor that recorded sound to the computer. When they made noises they "saw" them on a graph. Then the teacher told them that if the noise went over 90 decibels, they'd lose their break. They played along, testing how noisy they could be and watching the screen. They learned quickly, discovering things about graphs, measurement and keeping their break.

The funding, from Grants for Education Support and Training, stretched to several hundred schools which discovered that you don't need to split atoms to use sensors. Even a first experience using sensors to measure hand temperatures can lead to meaningful science.

After the money from GEST ran out, new sensor kits became available. All kits have sensors which plug into a sensor box and then into the computer. Any Windows, Acorn or Apple machine that uses menus and mice is fine. You'll find software such as Insight, Junior Insight (Longman Logotron), Investigate (Research Machines), SoftLab (Homerton College), Datadisc and Datadisc Junior (Philip Harris) useful.

Data Harvest's sensor box is called EasyLog. Like the established Sense Control box (Data Harvest), it plugs into the computer and lets you see graphs and readings on the computer screen. For collecting readings away from the computer, the EasyLog is very "plug and play". You plug in the sensors, press a button, and it will collect data until you're ready to stop. The EasyLog even works with Acorn Pocket Book or Psion palmtop computers.

The standard sensors measure temperature, light, sound and time. But if you want to branch out, Data Harvest does three really interesting sensors. There's a motion or distance sensor for making "live" distance-time graphs, a speed-of-sound sensor for measuring just that, and an amazing heat-loss sensor you can put on a window and "see" the heat flowing through it.

Another system you'll find is a family with the LogIT, DataMeter (both Griffin and George) and LIVE (RM and Xemplar) sensor boxes. You choose the box that suits, and then choose the sensors you'd like. DataMeter is new. It displays your readings, runs on long-life rechargeable batteries and has easy buttons that start and stop it. Both this and the LogIT box are portable and let you work out of doors. And while LogIT now has a clip-on display, if you're buying new, the DataMeter costs little more.

Primary schools will like the LIVE box. It has no buttons at all, and comes as a low-priced kit. While it only works when connected to a computer, you can plug it into a laptop or Acorn Pocket Book and use it out of doors. LIVE shows its potential for secondary work when you use it, say, with voltage sensors.

Science supplier Philip Harris does a large range of sensors for its sensor boxes. The First Sense range provides the essentials for data-logging. The sensors have a designed feel to them and, again, this is a no-button system. But if you want to experiment outside, you'll want their DLplus box instead. A tiny screen shows your readings on a graph. A small keyboard lets you save your results and adjust how often the sensors take readings.

Philip Harris has a deluxe range of sensors, called SensorMeters. With this range, you can measure radioactive decay or even infra-red radiation. They double as portable bench meters with adjustable measuring ranges, but are pricey.

Economatics does the Discovery, which has some neat science features: a nice size, a sensor display and an option to use it in the field.

Some sensor equipment is trickling over from the USA and the Pasco range is here with its "high school" flavour. It's capable of very high-speed data logging that lets you capture sound waves live on the computer. There are complete packages for each science, but again they cost a lot.

If there's a cutting edge, Video Logging (Philip Harris) may be that. With this you can not only record the noise level of the class, but also video them at the same time. Or you can video a flower opening as the daylight comes and goes. It's interesting, expensive and too new to say more.

While computers change dramatically by the month, it's some comfort that the sensors of five years back still work on the latest machines. What that means is that today's high-tech computers and software are running quite modest sensors. Like that class-noise meter, it might sound like a mismatch of technology, but it works.

WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION. * Commotion, Unit 11, Tannery Road, Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1RF. Tel: 01732 773399.

* Data Harvest, Woburn Lodge, Waterloo Road, Linslade, Leighton Buzzard, Beds LU7 7NR. Tel: 01525 373666.

* Economatics, Epic House, Darnall Road, Sheffield S9 5AA. Tel: 01142 561122.

* Griffin George, Bishop Meadow Road, Loughborough, Leics LE11 0RG. Tel: 01509 233344.

* Longman Logotron, 124 Cambridge Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge. Tel: 01223 425558.

* Pasco Scientific, Windmill Business Centre, Windmill Road, London UB2 4NT. Tel: 0181 560 5678.

* Philip Harris, Lynn Lane, Shenstone, Lichfield, Staffs WS14 0EE. Tel: 01543 480077.

* Research Machines, New Mill House, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4BR. Tel: 01235 826868.

* Xemplar, Vision Park, Histon, Cambridge CB4 4AE. Tel: 01223 724724.

* Leicester University, School of Education, 21 University Road, Leicester LE1. Tel: 01533 523656.

* Homerton College, IT Unit, Cambridge CB2 2PH. Tel: 01223 411215.

* Association for Science Education Booksales, College Lane, Hatfield AL10 9AA. Tel: 01707 267411.

* National Council for Educational Technology, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994.

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