In a test-tube time warp

14th March 1997 at 00:00
Information technology for science education has been around for 15 years. Many of the applications are easy to use and allow teachers and learners to do things that they could not otherwise do. But, paradoxically, IT in the science classroom is still uncommon.

The early days of IT may have had negative effects on teachers, who have long memories. The dreaded VELAs, the first data-logging boxes, which required considerable mental effort, are now collecting dust in cupboards; cohorts of teachers may have been infected with IT phobia by this notorious black box. Yet many applications of IT in the days of the BBC computer were excellent, easy to use and slotted straight into the curriculum.

Many of the 1980s simulations, such as Waves, Pond and Moving Molecules, allowed learners to look at a scientific model such as kinetic theory and play around with it. The Molecules program is still being used on the BBC, and why not? It allows learners to alter key variables such as pressure, temperature and volume and simply see what happens next.

Simulating and modelling are an important part of science and encourage learners to ask "what if?" questions. Many teachers would love to see a modern version of Molecules or Pond.

One company which has developed a range of good science simulations Nineties computers is Capedia with its Explorer series (Pounds 99), on topics ranging from ecology and photosynthesis to waves, diffraction and the gas laws (the nearest thing to Molecules). Simulations such as these help to explain abstract, invisible entities and processes - they can extend and develop the imagination needed to understand science.

It is also good to see Developing Tray (Pounds 46), which many teachers first used on the BBC, now available in a new Windows version (LETSS). This allows teachers to play games with text and help pupils to get to grips with the language of science.

Traditional practical work in science may well change with the availability of IT, although at present you'd hardly notice it in the average school science lab.

Using microscopes successfully so that "pupils see what they are supposed to see" is a perennial problem, though hardly surprising in that all observation in science is theory-laden. Video technology and multimedia are available to help - if you have the money.

Thus Education Interactive, for example, produces Photo CDs (from Pounds 34 to Pounds 51) for biology teachers, which allow them to display images on a monitor or TV during practical sessions. New technology such as this will certainly complement the standard use of microscopes in schools, if not replace it.

Meta Scientific has a flexible video camera (Pounds 650) that can be used to project images on to a monitor for group viewing and discussion. Philip Harris also has a camera on a flexible wand, Flexcam (Pounds 900), designed to give a class a clear view of what they are to observe. This can now be purchased as part of a complete pioneering package: at Pounds 3,995 Philip Harris offers the flexible camera, computer with software, keyboard and printer, along with Video Logging for capturing video images, storing and manipulating them. Video-logging is something to look forward to in the development of visual literacy for science education.

The benefits to pupils of data-logging are well-documented, yet it is not widely seen in action. For me, the Motion Sensor (Pounds 89, Data Harvest) has been the most successful single item, and is still available for the BBC computer as well as the new machines. It provides the ideal way of learning about motion, using body language, which is then shown on screen. Students can walk (or run) towards it, see their movement traced on a screen graph and then attempt to copy a movement that someone has made earlier. Every school should have one.

There is a wide range of other data-logging equipment on sale that is easily but not widely used. The LogIT DataMeter 1000 (Pounds 270, Griffin) is simple to operate: by plugging in a sensor the LCD display presents perfectly calibrated values, and with a single press of a button logging is immediately underway. EasyLog (Pounds 220, Data Harvest) similarly needs the press of just one button to commence logging. DL Plus (Pounds 385, Philip Harris) specialises in a variety of logging modes to suit a wide range of experimental requirements. Extra Sense (Pounds 149, NES Arnold) provides a robust low-cost interface in a steel case.

Software has a crucial role to play in making hardware serve a useful educational purpose. One package which has been used more than most is the Insight data-logging software (Longman Logotron), which works with all UK hardware. The new Insight 2 (Pounds 79) has valuable tools for displaying, analysing and manipulating data. It contains numerous enhancements which encourage pupils to think about experimental data-like simulations, encouraging "what if?" questions. Softlab (Pounds 150, Homerton College), now in its third version, is another tool for all the main data-loggers; uniquely, it allows users to plan their own investigation on screen, using icons.

For busy teachers, there is now an abundant supply of ideas for classroom activities using IT. Roger Frost has led the field with his IT in Science; they should give him a knighthood for his efforts to get IT used in primary and secondary classrooms. The National Council for Educational Technology has also provided excellent help over the years, with supportive leaflets, courses and packs.

CD-Roms provide simulations, databases and "virtual experiments" rolled into one. The most commonly used primary disc seems to be The Chemistry Set (Pounds 155, New Media). This allows users to search through a vast range of data, to visualise complex molecular structure and to do unsafe experiments such as dropping caesium into water. Bradford Technology's Forces and Effects (Pounds 99) is another program which allows learners to do virtual experiments on-screen.

One of the few CD-Roms designed to enrich and support practical work is Investigating Plant Science (Pounds 69, Homerton College), which is widely used and well-supported with classroom ideas and case studies. Another program to enhance practicals is Counter for Windows (BlackCat): this is a tool to help pupils plot graphs and create and edit tables of results. As with data-logging, it can take away some of the drudgery associated with practical work and allow learners to get on to some of the higher level skills of interpreting and asking questions.

One continual pressure for teachers is assessment, and IT can help. Exam Pro (Helix) uses a database of past GCSE and A-level papers to allow teachers and students to create their own customised papers for revision and practice assessment. Questions even come with a mark scheme and examiners' reports. Packages will cost from Pounds 97 to Pounds 250 for the complete works up to A-level. Acacia Revise (Stanley Thornes) offers a package for double and single-award science on CD-Rom (Pounds 45 for single user, Pounds 336 for network). Compact Questions (Thornes) is an electronic database of over 5,000 illustrated questions that again can be used to prepare homework, revision or topic tests.

The pressures of assessment may be one of the reasons why IT is not in widespread use. My hunch is that it is more to do with classroom organisation, layout, overcrowding, management and the availability of resources. IT has met the classroom - the classroom is still winning.

* Suppliers: BlackCat Educational Software Tel: 01874 636835 Bradford Technology Limited Tel: 01274 8413207 Capedia Tel: 01603 259900 Data Harvest Group Ltd Tel: 01525 373666 Education Interactive Tel: 01438 354537 Helix Tel:01384 424441 Roger Frost Tel: 0181 986 3526 Griffin George Tel: 01509 231166 Philip Harris Tel: 01543 480077 Homerton College IT Unit Tel: 01223 411141 LETSS Tel: 0181 850 0100 Longman Logotron Tel: 01223 425558 Meta Scientific Ltd Tel: 01276 475407 NCET Tel: 01203 416994 NES Arnold Scientific Ltd Tel: 0115 971 7700 New Media Press Tel: 01491 413999 Stanley Thornes Tel: 01242 228586

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