Sound of science

One of the driest subjects in physics gets an ICT makeover, transforming it into a topic children can't get enough of. Dorothy Walker reports

Is the lesson over already, Sir?" The class has been learning about the uses of sound, but the sound of the bell has come as a surprise to the teenagers gathered in Mark Hitch's classroom. They are engrossed in ultrasound, a topic that Mark admits can be "dead boring to teach - one of the worst in physics". But thanks to Mark's efforts with ICT, his Year 10 pupils are having so much fun they are reluctant to leave.

Ultrasound provides limited scope for creativity in the classroom. This is sound you cannot hear, and although there are fascinating applications of ultrasound in the natural and scientific worlds, live demonstrations and investigations are out of the question.

"You can hardly invite a bat in, to watch it find its prey," says Mark.

Instead, he has harnessed ICT to provide his students with a multimedia experience designed to entertain and make it easier for them to learn. Mark, who is head of physics at De Lisle Catholic School in Loughborough, says: "We live in a world of movement, sound, light and colour. Your brain registers it, and kids can't help but watch. It is an innate way of learning."

The twin lynchpins in his ICT armoury are Microsoft PowerPoint - the software for creating and delivering presentations - and a scan converter, which is an inexpensive gadget that allows the action on the computer screen to be displayed on a television set. Three wide-screen televisions give everyone in Mark's lab a good view.

In the wrong hands, presentations can be dull affairs - the presenter ploughing through reams of text on the screen and the audience pinned in their seats, wondering how many more slides can possibly be left before they are released from their agony. Not so in Mark's class, where the presentation is used as the catalyst to get the students involved, and as the tool which can quickly bring other learning resources into play, resulting in a slick lesson that makes optimum use of classroom time.

The presentation is the backdrop to the entire lesson on the uses of sound. Text on Mark's slides is kept to a minimum, with only the key learning points expressed in two or three succinct bullet points. His students are forbidden to copy verbatim from the slides. Instead, they know that at any point in the lesson they may asked to express, in their own terms, what it says on the screen. Mark may also video them as they give their answer, playing the film back there and then for the whole class to discuss.

Mark uses his digital camera every day and says: "It can capture a minute's worth of video on floppy disk, and that can be transferred to the computer and played in a matter of seconds. The students know they might be filmed at any point, and they want to get their answers right."

Mark's slides are the focus for activities that help inject fun into dry theory. The class reviews the properties of sound through a "find the missing words" puzzle displayed on the television.

"I might give the class three minutes in which they have to find each missing word: 'Sound is a l _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ wave, plus a word that rhymes with "each"'. That way we cover some literacy and try to create a mental link to each concept. Then I might ask a couple of students to describe what the words mean."

He challenges the class to recall the key properties of ultrasonics, making each bullet point on the screen appear and vanish again at the tap of a key. After three or four goes the information starts sinking in.

Sonar is explained with the aid of a slide that shows a ship locating a submarine via transmitted and reflected ultrasound beams. Mark explains how it works, then selects a student to come and "draw" on the slide, using PowerPoint's drawing tools to sketch how the beams act as locators. The slide could be animated, but drawing keeps the students actively engaged.

The highlight of the lesson is the section on ultrasound scanning, featuring a videoclip of Mark's son Tom in his mother's womb, which Mark filmed at Tom's 22-week scan. Mark says: "The images are a bit like the Magic Eye pictures - some children can see the baby immediately, some can't. So we zoom in, and I point out things like Tom's tiny beating heart."

Later he links straight to Encarta encyclopedia's section on bats, enlarging a sequence of pictures and using them to demonstrate how the mammals use ultrasound to navigate and find their supper. He says the scan converter in his classroom has built-in technology for improving the quality of pictures, so when you enlarge small images they look better on television than on the computer.

Mark can deliver any part of the lesson in a variety of ways, tailoring it to the four sets of pupils he teaches.

"People say PowerPoint is prescriptive, but I find it gives me great flexibility," he says.

He is an enormous fan of the scan converter, comparing it favourably with interactive whiteboards, which allow the whole class to work with a computer, but at much greater expense.

"I now have an interactive whiteboard, funded by my role as an advanced skills teacher, but it has given me no advantage, as I have learned to do everything you can do on the board - link to software, draw, play CDs, videos - using the mouse in PowerPoint. A basic scan converter costs pound;60, so you could equip 100 classrooms for the cost of the pound;6,000 board."

And for Mark, cost is a vital factor. Until recently he paid for his ICT equipment out of his own pocket, spending an average of pound;2,000 every year for the past 10 years.

"We are the least funded school in the least funded county. You have to break the cycle and get the ICT, then you can make real progress," he says.


* Discuss the objective, with students explaining it in their own words and suggesting the possible uses of ultrasound.

* Review the previous lesson, with students referring to their written summaries to help answer the teacher's questions.

Activity 1: Fill in the missing words on the slide that lists the key properties of sound. Finding rhyming words provides a link with literacy.

Activity 2: Learn the key facts on ultrasonics, through the "vanishing bullets" game. Make the bullet points on slide appear and vanish until students are able to shout out the key facts.

Activity 3: Understanding sonar. Demonstrate on slide how ships locate submarines, then ask students to draw, electronically, on the slide to explain how the ultrasound beams work.

Activity 4: Medical scanning. The class discusses the bullet-point advantages of ultrasound scanning. Show a picture of a medical scan in progress, drawing parallels with the ship-to-submarine scenario. Mark then shows a video of his baby son's scan - zooming in so that the class can see and discuss detail.

Activity 5: Applications of sound. Explain how ultrasound is used in industry, then get students to explain the applications in their own words. They might be asked to give a 10 or 15-word summary, telegram-style, or to write bullet points, or explain in very simple terms as they would to a Year 7 pupil.

Activity 6: How bats use ultrasound. Link to Encarta's section on bats, studying the sequence of pictures to understand how they employ ultrasound. Show the pictures in silence and ask the students to explain what they think is happening. Alternatively, explain the pictures, or set it as a task for homework (Encarta is available on school's network).

Summary: As in every lesson, students finish by writing their own summaries (three to four lines) of the key points. Later, as an aid to revision, they will incorporate them in a "summary of summaries" covering every lesson.


Websites Virtual Teacher Centre (VTC)

"When I am looking for science resources, this is where I begin," says Mark. His own contributions (follow the link to the teacher resource exchange) include a lesson guide and presentation on kinetic energy, and an animated model of the lungs.

Follow the link from teaching subjects to science for five ready-to-run databases that Mark built to help students study trends and patterns. Easy to download for any school that uses Microsoft Access, the databases cover the elements, energy use in toys, how we differ, properties of planets, and green planet rates of growth. Mark also approves quality-badged science websites for the VTC.

Science Online

A subscription-based website for science teachers, offering a resource centre, professional development advice and an online study room where teachers can make resources available to students.

PowerPoint presentations for all Mark's GCSE science and physics lessons can be found here. Free resources include five of his presentations from the 16+ Electricity and Electronics topic, together with ideas for using PowerPoint in science teaching.


Managed by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTa), Ferl is an information service that helps staff working in the post-16 sector make effective use of ICT.

Its website includes reviews of electronic learning materials, together with lesson plans, worksheets and advice on creating resources.

Mark has provided lesson plans and presentations on subjects such as medical physics, photoelectric effect and operational amplifier. There are also articles on the teaching benefits of scan converters and how to use Microsoft Office in the classroom. The latter focuses on the strategies and techniques he uses to enhance teaching and learning. They cover PowerPoint (for presentations), Excel (spreadsheets), and Word (word processing), and will shortly feature Access (databases).

ICT in Your Subject

BECTa, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) are co-operating in the creation of an exemplar website called ICT in Your Subject, which will be launched in September.

Mark has contributed science lesson exemplars on electromagnetic induction, acceleration, sound revision and speed. They feature case studies demonstrating how ICT can be effectively integrated into each lesson.


Crocodile Physics and Absorb Physics Crocodile Physics, from Crocodile Clips, is a software simulator that allows students to conduct on-screen experiments in electricity, electronics, optics, mechanics, kinematics and sound.

Absorb Physics - also from Crocodile Clips, for GCSE or A-level - is a complete physics course, which includes animated models and some of the Crocodile Physics simulations. Mark says: "I use them all the time - they are amazing value. The animated diagrams are really good. I could create them in PowerPoint, but why re-invent the wheel?"

Crocodile Physics

Price: pound;190

Absorb Physics for GCSE and Absorb Physics for A-Level Price: pound;295 each Tel: 0131 226 1511

Focus on Science Investigations 1

A software simulator from Focus Educational Software, which enables students to hone the skills they need for investigations in physics, chemistry and biology, and which can be used for GCSE coursework submissions.

"I use it a lot to help students who have been away to catch up with investigations. A computer simulation is not the same as doing a real investigation, but at least they get some marks for it," says Mark.

Price: pound;59.95 Tel: 01872 241672


AverMedia Computer-to-TV Converter

The least expensive in AverMedia's range of scan converters is the AVerKey100 Pro, pound;69.99, but Mark recommends the AVerKey300 (pound;122), which provides better-quality pictures and zoom facilities. He says, "It is robust, and has never let me down".

Last year he upgraded to a more sophisticated model, the AverVision DL (pound;424.68), which incorporates a video camera. Any experiment or demonstration that takes place in front of the camera can be seen on the television by the whole class.

"It's great for practicals, and it allows students to present to the class from a book or photocopy, without having to spend time making wall-sized posters."

Tel: 01908 218800

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