When you're looking for software, it's crucial to think about whether you can use it in class or whether it's just for the library, says Roger Frost.
Almost all new science software comes on shiny CD-Rom discs. What's good about this is that today's software, with its photographic images and read-aloud text, feels as though it's useful. At last, young and struggling readers can now get a piece of the science action. When you're looking for software it's crucial to sort out where you will use it: there's the stuff you can teach with and use in the classroom and then there's other stuff that belongs in the library.
For example, The Chemistry Set is a CD-Rom that works in the classroom. It's a huge bank of information about the elements - with facts and pictures about how they react, where they occur and who discovered them. There are handy snippets of film where fluorine reacts with neon and caesium with water - things you'd not do for real, but are worth showing.
You can analyse the data here, too. You can plot a graph of atomic number against melting point, to spot a useful pattern in seconds. Or you can plot atomic number against ionic radius - any pair of features in fact - and you could explore a range of patterns. It's such a challenge to explain these patterns, this is something I'd want to guide pupils through.
Homerton College's Investigating Plant Science also has a classroom feel about it. It collects together scarce information about UK plant life - abstracts from New Scientist, and interesting stories about using orange peel as a fly killer or how Dodos helped to conserve trees.
There's detail on 30 useful plants - telling how they flower, how to germinate them and where to get them. As this is on computer, you can search the text to find which plants best lend themselves to investigating geotropism or transpiration.
What's also unique is a key that helps you to identify common weed species. Many keys insist on you having a flowering plant to identify it but here you can answer questions about the stem, leaves, and fruits, if that's all you have to go on.
Unlike many CD-Roms, there are no whistles and bluebells on this one - instead there's precious data that serious biologists will value.
Another title, Multimedia Motion is unparalleled. It's a collection of video clips showing cars crashing and balls bouncing which you can analyse frame by frame. So you click on a ball in one frame, then the next and build up graph points.
One more click and you'll see your points on a graph of distance, velocity or acceleration against time - it's the sort of analysis that we've needed to do but never easily could. Other sequences, and there are 50 in all, show a jogger, a rocket and let you compare a feather and a hammer falling on the Moon. Physicists will be able to run with this. They can also stop to see Multimedia Sound which uses the same idea, but with a different tune.
I'd look at these titles as teaching tools rather than the stimulus or reading material you'd have in the library.
It's here that a couple of the now classic Dorling Kindersley titles distinguish themselves: The Ultimate Human Body is a graphical look inside the body where pupils click on a body to find out about what's inside.
They'll see animated hearts and joints and they'll find magazine-style answers to questions such as why do you blink or why do we sleep? Perhaps its special value is that children who don't like to be seen reading a book feel cool with it.
Another DK title, The Way Things Work, looks at the workings of every appliance, from the television to the aqualung. It's funny, interesting and wraps up a lot of knowledge in cartoonery. It's just the thing I'd have wanted as an inquisitive youth, when funnily enough, tellys didn't work.
Primary schools might go for Anglia Multimedia's Seashore Life and Garden Wildlife. Between them they let children explore habitats such as the estuary, garden pond and lawn. They're very graphic so they'll find them easy to use too. Seashore Life is the better offering as there's spoken commentary in nice, small doses. They'll hear about plover or sea aspen and, even if this isn't your speciality, you'll not find it at all intimidating.
Microsoft's Explorapedia is a child's encyclopedia of plant and animal life. Children can visit habitats such as rain forests and wetlands, or look up facts about gorillas and snakes. As they browse, there's plenty of hand-holding with a commentary, but to find specific things they'll need to read a little. Set beside the unreadable Encarta the difference is dramatic.
It's strange that life topics are well covered but one home-grown title, Exploring Nature, is too clever to miss. With this you can go exploring the environment with thermometer, light meter, camera and nature book. So you might go to the pasture, make observations and compare these with the forest. As preparation for a school field trip, this has much to help pupils look at nature with their scientist spectacles on.
If you need more choice than this shortlist, the National Council for Educational Technology has information sheets for secondary schools and books full of CD-Rom reviews for primary schools which will guide you.
Finally, if you roll your own teaching materials, you'll want computer diagrams of Bunsens, tripods or obscure glass widgets. The timeless SSERC Graphics Library with all of that for grabs, is at last available for the Apple. Oddly, there's only a floppy disc version for the PC but considering the scarcity of CD-Rom machines that might be a blessing.
Exploring Nature (for Windows and Acorn) from Hampshire Microtechnology Centre, Connaught Lane, Paulsgrove, Portsmouth PO6 4SJ. Tel: 01705 378266.
The Chemistry Set (for Windows and Acorn), The Way Things Work (for Windows or Apple), The Ultimate Human Body (for Windows or Apple), Explorapedia (Windows), Garden Wildlife, Seashore Life (Windows, Apple, Acorn) from AVP, School Hill Centre, Chepstow, Gwent NP6 5PH. Tel: 01291 625439.
Multimedia Motion, Multimedia Sound (Windows) from Cambridge Science Media, 354 Mill Road, Cambridge CB1 3NN. Tel: 01223 357546.
Investigating Plant Science (Windows) from Homerton College IT Unit, Cambridge CB2 2PH. Tel: 01223 507161.
CD-Rom information sheets and evaluations books from National Council for Educational Technology, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994.
SSERC Graphics discs (Windows, Apple, Acorn) from SSERC, St Mary's Building, 23 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AE. Tel: 0131 558 8180.