Demystifying science

16th June 1995 at 01:00
Primary teachers can explore a wealth of curriculum and training material, using a CD-i player with simple remote control, writes Angela MacFarlane. MIST (MODULAR INVESTIGATIONS INTO SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY). Age group: 5-11. Six CD-i discs Pounds 275; Pounds 65 each or Pounds 99 for two. CD-i player Pounds 406. Philips Media, School 2000 Department.

Tel: 0171 911 3060.

Multimedia is still in its infancy. The delivery platforms may be maturing but try browsing through a random selection of titles and you will soon see that in terms of design and particularly integrity of content, there is still a long way to go.

Too many titles leave the user feeling somewhat unsatisfied. The breadth and depth of content the titles seemed to offer never quite materialised. In particular, titles billed as suitable for science education have often failed to pay sufficient attention to the accuracy of the information they contain.

Against that backdrop it is especially exciting to find titles which not only exploit their publishing medium in a meaningful way but use it to deliver a substantial volume of high-quality material. The MIST discs for primary science certainly meet those criteria with ease.

Designed originally for interactive video and now brought up to date and re-designed for CD-i, the six MIST discs offer an extraordinary resource which supports science through key stages 1 and 2.

There are five curriculum discs: Air and Water; Forces, Machines and Structures; The Senses; Materials and Environment and Living and Growing, and a sixth disc for teachers. Each disc contains a series of video clips on topic areas. Each clip forms the heart of a "chapter", which ranges from examples of practical classroom technniques, to crashing cars and floating water drops in a space shuttle. There is a choice of two audio tracks. In the curriculum material these offer simpler commentary on the events in the film and pose some intriguing questions, or a more sophisticated description using more scientific language. Also accompanying each clip are ideas for follow-up activities and links to the national curriculum for England and Wales or Scotland. This is based on the latest post-Dearing documents, so is bang up to date. In the teachers' material the same video clip is offered with a description of the key scientific concepts involved, delivered in clear, easily-understood language. The alternative audio gives an explanation of some of the common ideas children may have about the subject under study.

There are also written support materials. Each chapter has a sheet of A4 to accompany it. This gives a synopsis of the video clip, key concepts, and suggestions for follow-up activities. Everything is so clear and straightforward that any teacher would gain real support from these materials in their delivery of the science curriculum.

There is no assumption of specialist knowledge, and yet the material is not simplistic in any sense. One reassuring factor is the way the audio points out the stage at which the science concept under examination can safely be left until the children are older.

The quality of this product is hardly surprising when you look at the list of people involved in MIST and the sources on which they have drawn. The advisory team including teachers and science educators was headed by Professor Wynne Harlen. The materials draw heavily on Professor Ros Driver's work and the SPACE project. Add to that the expertise of award-winning television producer Peter Morley and the integrity of the content as a whole was assured.

The only criticism I could elicit from people I showed the resources to was that some of the video clips felt a little dated. This was mainly a reference to the clothes the people in any clip were wearing, however, and as the science itself certainly has not changed, this is not a serious problem.

The software has a nice clean design and a straightforward structure. It is obvious what your options are at any point, and easy to go where you want to. The discs are played via a Philips CD-i player. These machines plug into any TV and are operated via a two-button controlling device. Anyone who can use a TV remote control will have no problem with CD-i. You do not need a computer.

Unfortunately you cannot play these discs on a CD-Rom-based computer, even if you have one. CD-i uses a different protocol for putting information on the disc and reading it back. It should also be said that most computer-based systems would not yet give you this quality of video either.

Consider a primary school which has a real need for staff development in science across the school. This is a widespread problem since few qualified primary teachers had any formal science experience in their own education. What are the options? They could send everyone on a one-day course for about Pounds 200 each including cover, or one person on a week- long course for about Pounds 1,000 including cover. They could buy in an expert to visit the school and provide staff development for about Pounds 250 a day. They could buy a CD-i player, with digital video cartridge and the MIST discs at a total cost of about Pounds 700 (Pounds 406 for the player and Pounds 275 for the complete set of discs).

Which is likely to show the greatest impact on the experience of science of every child in the school? Which is likely to still be showing a return on investment a year later?

With the discs the staff have a resource they can draw on as and when required. If you are teaching a topic on forces next half term, take the player home for a weekend and go through the teacher's material. Have a quick look at the support sheet for the relevant chapter the evening before to refresh your memory on the key concepts and jot down a few good questions to pose to children as they are working.

You don't even need to re-run the video as the synopsis is there for you. Then you have the option of using the video as a starting point in class, to focus the children, get them thinking and asking questions before launching into an activity.

Certainly the provision of INSET material on demand which these discs offer, meeting teachers' needs as and when they arise, is surely bound to have a more lasting impact than a short one-off input.

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