Experiments in the cyberlab
If you want to know about the world's use of energy or the extent of malnutrition, you could pop down to the library and leaf through some books. Or you could drop someone a line, chat to a colleague or phone up a philanthropist.
However, getting information, research material, ideas and discussion doesn't only happen in that way today. There's this Internet thing, see. It's not new, but it has become much easier to use in the last couple of years and is going to get even easier.
One growth area is science teaching. The Internet can provide all the widgets of information you need, and a place to meet colleagues and to scream "help, I need a worksheet". Schools are trawling the Net for science resources. They use software to search for, say, "genetics" and are directed to the relevant pages, or go straight to a menu page and dive off from there.
Nick Parsons, head of physics at Wheatley Park School in Oxfordshire, had his A-level group finding out about electronics and thermo-dynamics.
The A-level biologists went to Friends of the Earth and received a map of Britain containing hard-to-find environmental information. "It's just like doing primary research," he says.
Similarly, Malcolm Stuart at Shaftesbury Independent School in Surrey says their A-level physics groups found material on fibre-optics and particle physics while the biologists swotted up on diabetes and hormone replacement.
The two schools, which I picked at random on the Net, differ in their technology. Wheatley Park has a fairly typical set-up: a computer connected to a telephone line in the library. Shaftesbury is better resourced with an Acorn network linked to the Internet with a high-speed ISDN line that allows many students to go trawling for information at the same time.
However, even with Wheatley Park's basic system, pupils are keener to visit the library, emphasises Nick Parsons. "It's really opened up things for kids who feel intimidated by books or feel a bit embarrassed about using one, " he says.
Wheatley Park is one of 60 schools in a Department of Trade and Industry project called Schools OnLine, which gave participants a leg up to the Internet by partnering them with major information technology companies such as IBM, Research Machines, Bull and Apricot. Many schools gained a telephone line, modem and Internet connection, plus support.
Brakenhale school in Berkshire certainly got the bonus ball. ICL provided them with a room of networked computers and a dedicated high-speed kilostream line from the Internet, which means they spend less time on-line, and therefore have smaller telephone bills. They also have an Internet server which enables them to put their own pages on the Net.
Everyone needs clues on how to use what's available. Teachers who have been searching seem to agree on one thing: you do find things but there's a lot that is high level. One added that some university research pages were "as hard and dry as a dog biscuit".
Some academics are attempting to provide help for UK schools. Patrick Fullick, an education lecturer at Southampton University, has put together a school science journal with student experiment write-ups. The current edition investigates bouncing balls, how to use electricity and what heart-rates mean, and the authors here start at just 11 years. It must give students a real buzz.
To see how the Internet can encourage participation and help science, you have to visit the Schools OnLine Science site at Sheffield Hallam University, set up by the Department of Trade and Industry. You can use the "Library", visit the Science Cafe, the Lab and the Prep Room to exchange ideas and information with other students and teachers.
In the Science Cafe pupils can meet real scientists, read how they got to where they are and about the sorts of science that inspired them. There is another angle too: the hope that pupils might be so encouraged by seeing the human side of astronomers and astronauts that they start to ask questions. They do this by sending an electronic mail message, and on special weeks a resident scientist is on hand to fire back prompt answers.
The Lab is the place to pick up ideas for investigations, most of which use IT. Pupils can investigate the school's use of energy for lighting or the relationship between personal reaction time and age. There are worksheets, ideas for data-logging and results which you can use and analyse. Some investigations, like the one on reaction time, benefit from testing a large number of people, so pupils are encouraged to send in their results and add them to a growing pool. It is starting to sound unique, useful and like good science, too.
The Prep Room offers teachers space to add their thoughts and cull ideas from others. After barely six months, good ideas are already in place.
Schools OnLine Science project leader John Wardle says they had to build from scratch. "When we started there was no focus, no obvious place on the Internet for science teachers to go to. We are trying to offer that focus and provide something teachers can interact with. We're aiming to have a great breadth of content and activities. There's a lot of development work ahead."
* Schools OnLine Science: http:sol.ultralab.anglia.ac.ukpagesschool onlinecontents.html * Patrick Fullick's Science Journal:http:ilc.ecs.soton.ac.ukscijournalhome.html * Science teacher Stephen Bainesruns School Science Digest,which collects Internet sites andsends out regular electronicmailshots: http:turnpike.netmetrovollanssci. html