Les Watson has new ideas for zooming ahead with a vintage maths program
I have always thought that the most powerful uses of computers in the classroom are those that extend the possible. The real test of a program's worth is if it can be used for something that cannot be done without a computer. Much simulation software clearly falls into this category.
In my days as a science teacher, I found that a computer with simulation software was really useful for helping students understand key ideas, such as the inheritance pattern of a particular gene or the manufacture of sulphuric acid on an industrial scale. At primary level, simulation software has also proved to be a classic software type which can support a wide range of classroom activities around a particular theme.
One of my favourite simulation programs is Cars - Maths in Motion from Cambridgeshire Software House. The program is now more than 15 years old (it was released in 1984), but still ranks as one of the best educational simulation programs ever.
Cars does not have great graphics, nor is it interactive in the modern multi-media sense. It is one of the best because the program is not overly graphics-based, meaning that most of the interactivity related to the program is generated in the child's mind.
Children using Cars work in teams to set up a racing car and compete in international motor-racing. The program comes with plans of all major international racing circuits. It is therefore possible to involve the class in a world motor-racing championship over a whole term with a different race each week. The children race their cars on a different track each time, which means they have to test and refine the settings so the car can cope with the differing demands of each track.
The lengths of the straight sections and the number and tightness of the bends demand that factors such as acceleration, gear ratios, and hardness of suspension are adjusted accurately. The children have to measure the sections and angles of the track in order to calculate the settings necessary for the car to achieve its best performance.
This is where the "maths in motion" bit comes in. The children are immersed in the world of motor-racing but need to use protractors, rulers and calculators to compete effectively. Worksheets are provided to guide them through the maths work that they need to do. Practice laps allow the team to rethink, and recalculate, squeezing the very best performance from their car on each track.
Cars is an excellent way to introduce children to mathematical modelling at key stage 2. As we have all learned from the school of life, maths with a purpose is the maths we accept the most readily.
However, the potential for work in the classroom does not stop with setting up the racing car. While the focus may be on maths, racing teams need designs, logos, sponsorship and promotion. Cars provides endless opportunities for art and design work. The need to identify and attract sponsors provides a theme for letter writing, and when sponsorship is achieved the need changes to encompass advertising copy writing and strapline production. Cars provides endless opportunities for a wide variety of work across the curriculum and is one of the best mathematical modelling programs around.
Les Watson is dean of learning and information services at Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher EducationCars - Maths in MotionFor Windows and Acorn, from Cambridgeshire Software House,01487 741223 (pound;34.95 + VAT)