This series is Channel 4's effort to rescue, sustain and succour primary science. A welcome initiative to be sure, but does it work?
There are three new programmes this term under the heading Energy from Nature. Each one follows a theme: setting up a problem such as "how can electricity be produced by the moon?" They then attempt to tell an appealing, visually illustrated story to answer it.
The programmes offer much of what television does best. Drawing on computer graphics and material from far-flung locations with shots of bananas being grown in Iceland, electrical generators in France and the Hubble telescope in space, each programme weaves a tale that will interest young children at least in part, if not for the whole of its 15 minutes.
The teacher's notes claim the series is designed to encourage the development of scientific skills and develop a body of scientific knowledge. Yet television science programmes always face a problem - the medium provides a passive experience, so it is difficult to provide opportunities to practise scientific skills.
The responsibility for that falls on the teacher's notes. The 24-page booklet shows how the material relates to the national curriculum, although there is too little detail to fathom the explicit links. Each programme has a two-page black and white spread, giving a summary of the programme, learning outcomes, background information and suggestions for activities to undertake with the children before and after. Inevitably, in such a limited space, much of the treatment is cursory, but there are some good ideas that would provide interesting further work.
Recounting the tale of science in limited time is always a compromise between detail and factual accuracy, as opposed to the broad picture and attention-grabbing visuals. Thus we see the space shuttle Discovery take off not once but four times in the programme on producing energy from light, while being told that the Sun is made of "exploding gases", which it is not; and in the first programme on producing electricity from the tides that electricity is sent to a "collecting station", which gives the impression that it can be stored when it cannot. To its credit, though, the story is told in a language which most children will understand.
Worse though, is that two of the programmes uses the word "electricity" as a generic catch-all, failing to make a distinction between electrical energy, electrical power and electrical charge. To say we "make electricity" implies that we fabricate the stuff and push it into the wires - we don't! What we do is transfer energy electrically from one point of the country to another because it is by far the simplest and easiest way to do it. The amount of electrical charge in the wires does not vary. The moral is that words, and their appropriate use, matter as much as pictures.
These programmes are not an end in themselves, a recipe for a good lesson, but rather a valuable resource which, used judiciously, will help support primary science.
Jonathan Osborne is senior lecturer in science education at King's College, London'Stage Two Science: energy from nature' video pound;14.99; resource book pound;6.95; activity book pound;6.95, all from Channel 4 Schools, tel: 01926 436444