I do not direct the boys - I expect them to go off and research the science themselves." So says Steven Jones, as he watches his students get to grips with the intricacies of a science investigation.
Jones is head of science at Bishop's Stortford High School, Hertfordshire, and his approach has reaped rich rewards. Not only do the students shine in their science coursework, but their skills in self-directed research have now won their school a top science award for four of the five years in which it has been running. And at an early stage in their career, they learn how ICT can help polish the skills that make a good scientist - especially if students miss vital lessons, or feel they are falling behind.
Today, Year 11 boys are investigating resistance in wires. Working in pairs, they measure an electrical wire less than one millimetre thick with a micrometer. They will then take voltage and current readings at intervals along the wire, noting how its electrical resistance relates to its length, its thickness, and its resistivity, which depends on what the wire is made of.
The physics investigation takes four lessons and two homework sessions, and coursework marks are based on the four pillars of good scientific practice: planning; observation; analysis; and evaluation.
Any boy who missed a coursework lesson used to face the daunting prospect of playing catch-up, especially if no teacher was free to recap on the introductory session. Now, rather than eavesdropping on classmates'
experiments, anyone who has been absent can use software to help fill the gaps. With care, it can help students gain valuable marks.
The software is Focus on Science Investigations 1, from Focus Educational, which simulates key GCSE investigations on screen. Jones says: "In the past, if boys missed the resistance coursework we allowed them to gain some marks by doing the software simulation, and following it up with an evaluation, in which they had to suggest how they would have gone about the experiment in the lab.
"However, we could only award marks for the analysis of the data produced by the simulation, and for evaluation. There were no marks for planning or observation, as the software was doing the planning and observing as part of the simulation."
Now Jones has found a more profitable way to work, and it works particularly well for this investigation. Students who might otherwise fall seriously behind can slot the software into a fast-track practical, in which there are planning and observation marks to be gained.
Jones says: "I advise them to run through the simulation before they draw up their own plan. It provides some pointers, helping them assess what a fair test is, and guiding them as to how many results they should take.
"They then use the micrometer to measure the thickness of the wire, and enter that value into the software, which runs through the simulation and produces a set of results. Even if they don't have time to do the experiment in the lab, they gain some observation marks for using the micrometer, which is a precision instrument. And if they do go on to do the practical, they have prepared by practising on screen. They know how the equipment should be set up and used, and they have seen a predictive graph, which shows what sort of pattern they should expect from their own results."
It is the task of the students themselves to try to explain the science behind the pattern. Jones says: "A few weeks before the investigation we run through the factors which cause resistance in a wire, but I don't give students the formula for resistance. Ideally, they should be able to go off and research the science themselves, and the software does not do that work for them. The whole process is differentiated: can they find this information, and can they use it?"
He believes the software gives lower-ability students a better opportunity to demonstrate the skills they have learned, particularly in physics. "Physics is very mathematical, and before we used the software, a student who had difficulty with the maths might have been lost. His work might have shown no progression beyond key stage 3, even if he had learned a lot of science."
He says: "The school has an all-ability intake, and our average for coursework is just one mark off an A. The work the boys have done on their practical has certainly helped increase their science grades."
And at Bishop's Stortford, success breeds success. This year, a team from the school once again won first prize in the 11 to 18 category of the Students' and Teachers' Educational Materials (STEM) Awards, run by the Science Museum (details in the box above right). The prize is awarded for the best website built to record a visit to a science museum.
"I am very proud of their STEM achievement," says Jones. "But I am not going to take any credit for it - my involvement was nil."
Focus on Science Investigations 1 is a software simulator that enables students to practise the skills they need for investigations and can be used for GCSE coursework submissions. The CD-Rom includes 15 self-paced investigations in physics, chemistry and biology, each linked to an animated reference section.
Jones says: "One of the things I haven't done is to use the software with the whole class, but my colleagues have used some of the simpler experiments with Year 8. They particularly enjoyed the experiment on photosynthesis in pondweed, which is difficult to do in the lab." The new Science Investigations 2 provides a further 23 simulations for GCSE SC1 coursework.
Science Investigations 1, pound;59.95, Science Investigations 2, pound;69.95, from Focus Educational Software Ltd Tel: 01872 241672 www.focuseducational.com