From here to infinity
We assembled outside the back door, bleary-eyed. Me and three boys unsure why they had been dragged out of bed just before midnight. "The moon looks odd, Dad. It's a sort of peach colour and there is a chunk bitten out of the edge."
They were clearly not impressed with their first glimpse of a total eclipse of the moon. I suggested they look in the opposite direction at a faint blur in the sky to the comet Hyakutake. "You won't be able to see it again for another 8,000 to 10,000 years," I told them. A barrage of questions followed, many of which I couldn't answer. With a last glance at the moon, now in total eclipse, we decided to get the answers after some sleep.
In the clear light of day, these were to be found in the Redshift 2 CD-Rom. This has 40 minutes' worth of guided tours covering the Big Bang, the lives of stars and the history of the solar system, all beautifully animated and soothingly narrated by actress Hannah Gordon.
The level was a little advanced for our immediate purposes. Dipping straight into the simulation also proved to be daunting with all the buttons and panels, so we opted for one of the tutorials, entitled "Total Eclipse of the Moon".
These automatically take control of the simulation. A single click displayed the astronomical phenomenon we observed the night before. The next tutorial showed us what the eclipse would look like if we were standing on the moon with the earth moving between us and the sun.
Unfortunately there was nothing on comet Hyakutake. But a quick visit via the Internet to the Maris Multimedia Web site produced useful links to astronomy Web sites with pictures and details about the comet and an update for RedShift 2 so we could follow the path of comet Hyakutake through the solar system.
The photogallery provided some stunning pictures of eclipses and comets but we were easily distracted by movies of some of the landmarks in space exploration.
The Penguin Dictionary of Astronomy is dynamically linked to text highlighted in blue, so clear explanations for obscure technical terms were readily available.
After an absorbing couple of hours we emerged with even more questions to answer. This is what a good multimedia simulation is all about. Experiencing our solar system unrestricted by time or space, only a Tardis would be better.
The real challenge was how to take advantage of this resource at school. On one machine, its use is limited to one person. Redshift 2 can be run over the network but realistically only six to 10 students can be served before the network becomes a bottleneck.
The CD material needs to be more structured to fit into the science curriculum and it would be nice to incorporate, say, the breathtaking shots of deep space taken from the Hubble telescope. In this context, even the best CD can limit rather than liberate the learner.
One of the features of Redshift 2 is the ease with which you can generate stand-alone movies of any simulation. For example, an animation of a lunar eclipse. Authoring software such as HyperStudio can be used to knit these movies together, but the process is quite time-consuming and unfamiliar to most teachers.
However, a word processor has probably been used to construct a worksheet anyway, so the movies from Redshift 2 can be inserted together with some pictures to form a multimedia document. This can be stored as a template on the network with one copy of the movie for use by a whole class. The movies can be played back within the document by individuals in their own time, re-wound or stepped through frame by frame. Their observations can then be written in a word processor, such as ClarisWorks or Microsoft Word, and printed out.
This has several advantages. Both child and teacher are familiar with the environment, the multimedia worksheets are easy to construct and they do not clog up the network. Movies can also be a series of pictures strung together in the form of a slide show.
On the Macintosh platform all this can be done very easily with MoviePlayer and QuickTime; equivalent tools are also available for Video for Windows. Of course this strategy can be used for any subject.
The long road between idea and implementation is a fact of life for all of us struggling to use information technology appropriately. Redshift 2 is a worthwhile example of CD-Rom technology and a useful purchase. But teachers need more help to get the best use out of their CDs. Hopefully, clever developers like Maris will provide us with the means to do this.
y Maris Web site http:www.maris.com y Quicktime utilities are available from Apple dealers.