Hot enough to be cool

28th March 2003 at 00:00
Wireless networking is hot technology. Douglas Blane visits a school that is right there at the cutting edge

Science pupils at Monifieth High School in Angus are using some of the hottest technology around right now - known appropriately enough as hotspots. The official name is public wireless local area networks, and they are currently being installed in airports, hotels, conference centres and cafes to let busy executives keep working while on the move. In some parts of the world, hotspots are called coolspots - and the Monifieth students can see why.

In one of the science labs, physics head Rhona Goss is introducing her third-year class to lasers, X-rays and ultrasound, using technology that is much more modern than any of these: a set of laptops with wireless connection to the internet, and an interactive whiteboard, on which she pulls up images of waves, medical instruments and the electromagnetic spectrum.

A key point, says Ms Goss, is that technology, no matter how sophisticated, is only a start. "There's no doubt you can plonk kids in front of a laptop and have a quiet period. They'll be entertained. But are they actually learning any better? One of the challenges for teachers is to make sure they are not just skimming through websites - we want them to extract, write down, focus, structure, analyse."

This sounds a lot to ask of a bunch of 15-year-olds being introduced to a new topic using the newest technology. And of course they won't do all that this morning, but they will go further, says Ms Goss, than she has attempted at this stage in previous years. Having gained experience with the technology, she and the other science staff now find that novel possibilities for lessons keep on suggesting themselves.

"The first time you use an interactive whiteboard it's amazing. Then you go through a period of thinking maybe it's a bit limited, and there are all sorts of technical problems. But in the past few weeks I've been using the boards much more widely in my lessons, and now I'm hooked."

The package of new ICT equipment at the school - the wireless network, whiteboards, data projectors and laptops - was procured with funding from the Scottish Executive for a project aimed specifically at first and second-year science. So this is the area of the curriculum where Rhona Goss and chemistry and biology colleagues have prepared most resources to support ICT-assisted lessons.

"We've identified half a dozen places in the first and second-year science curriculum where we're now telling all our teachers they have to use ICT - for research, datalogging, analysis, pupil presentations, simulation, visualisation. We've devised a structure for these particular lessons, with pupil sheets and teacher guides, backed by in-house training. But in addition we're beginning to gain the confidence to just try something out on occasion and see how it works. This lesson is one of those."

The lesson begins with a discussion, enlivened by whiteboard images and simulations as well as frequent contributions from the students - particularly one young lad who has recently had a whole battery of hospital tests: "They stuck me in a big machine and gave me a CT scan."

"Did it look like this?" asks Ms Goss.

"Yeah, that's it! Then I had ultrasound and they showed me the inside of my body, but it was all blurry and I couldn't make it out."

Ms Goss pulls up a black and white ultrasound image that resembles the moon viewed through thin cloud: "Most of us find it hard to see anything. But the doctors who take these images are trained to interpret them. Can anybody tell me what they'd have done to Adam before they had CT scanners or ultrasound?"

"Cut him open, miss."

"That's right. You'll find this is a thread running right through health physics - new techniques and instruments to diagnose your illnesses without having to cut you open.

"Now CT scans and ultrasound both let doctors see inside you. But they work in very different ways. Can anybody tell me what an ultrasound machine puts into your body to create its image?"

The discussion continues, ranging from the nature of sound and X-rays to the medical uses of optical fibres, lenses and thermometers: "They used to be made of mercury and you held them in your mouth, but now they're digital, and they stick them in your ear, and they go 'Beep, beep, beep'."

Soon it's time for the class to get out their laptops and get to work.

"Great," says one young lad, as he bumps the whiteboard's computer, disturbing its alignment. A few minutes later another boy unplugs the data projector by mistake. "That sort of thing could have caused big problems a few weeks ago," says Ms Goss, as her fingers quickly and expertly set it all up again.

She now gives the pupils a task that will occupy them for the rest of the lesson, as well as the following two, and "a little bit extra at home".

Working in pairs they have to choose a topic from infrared, X-rays, ultraviolet and lasers, and carry out a piece of research using the library or the internet. Each group will prepare and deliver a two-page report or a four-slide presentation to the class. Few of them have used PowerPoint before, so Ms Goss says she will show them next session: "It's not difficult."

One of the most valuable lessons technology has taught the teachers, says Ms Goss, is the difference the output of a research project makes to the quality of learning it delivers: "If you ask the kids to write a report they just cut and paste, and you have to wonder how much they've learned.

But if they have to give a presentation on the whiteboard, then they need to analyse their data and structure it.

Without even realising it, they'll be engaging with the information, picking out the important parts, thinking critically about what they read and see.

"ICT changes classroom dynamics, and lessons can be much more interactive.

You can get kids out to the whiteboard, ask them to draw something, highlight a feature, drag and drop, then get comments from the class.

Children with challenging behaviour can be whiz-kids on the computers, helping each other out instead of fighting.

"Some of what we're doing is traditional science - recalling facts, understanding concepts. But we have this whole other realm now, about developing group work and research skills, critical abilities and informed attitudes. These are transferable skills. Once the children have got them they can use them in any subject."

Useful resources Animations with lucid and visually appealing discussions ranging from the double slit experiment and line spectra to the generation of X-rays and a water molecule absorbing energy in a microwave oven: www.colorado. eduphysics2000appletsindex.html The electromagnetic spectrum, with sections on each type of wave from radio to gamma: www.darvill.clara.netemagindex.htm A wealth of useful links, including "top interactive whiteboard site", a detailed exploration of human anatomy and a periodic table : uk Crocodile Clips produces a range of software for physics, chemistry, maths and technology. High School Physics was the first title of the Absorb courseware series, which combines simulations, text, animations and interactive questions to form a complete on-screen GCSEStandard grade djb, a company run by a former teacher ("putting the fizz into physics") is extending its interfacing hardware and software from physics into biology and chemistry. A new product, Simple Data Handling, fills a gap in the market, allowing upper primary and lower secondary pupils to input and analyse A new book from the team that developed the Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education materials. Teachers are shown how pupils can be encouraged to question, reason, think critically, be creative, and apply their scientific skills to current affairs: Thinking Through Science by Arthur Cheney et al, series published by John Murray, also on CD-Roms.

The Association for Science Education has a new free email service, which aims to bring out the science behind the headlines with weekly alerts to curriculum-relevant news, supported by website links and activity sheets.

Latest issue covers life on Europa, a new Ebola outbreak and the science of invisibility.Email: Planet Science, which grew out of Science Year, provides a weekly email of news, stories, experiments and details of current projects:


* 26 Toshiba laptops with Celeron 1.5MHz, 256Mb RAM, CDDVD drive, wireless card and Windows XP.

* A Labsafe mobile trolley allows the batteries to be charged when the laptops are not in use.

* Two SMART 560 boards mounted on a trolley.

((Monifieth hopes to add a couple of wall-mounted boards.) The SMART board was selected for ease of use, as a pen is not needed to activate it. An additional whiteboard - Promethean ACTIVboard - is being considered as it comes with good software support.

* 3 Epson projectors

* 1 NEC projector

* 2 HP laser printers with wireless access

Wireless LAN

* 8 x 3-Com Access Point 8000 (radio antennae). A site survey showed that eight provide adequate coverage for the science department.

* 1 x 12-port Power Ethernet Power chassis.

The wireless LAN runs at (optimum rate) 11MBS and the access points were connected to the school landline. There is a short delay during the initial log-in, but this set-up has been adequate for normal use. However, when pupils are using software applications, the laptops are used in stand-alone mode to avoid heavy traffic over the radio LAN, which is only used when a pupil is accessing a home directory or using the internet.

It is difficult to be definitive about costs. The wireless installation was approximately pound;10k. Whiteboard and projector prices are dropping all the time. Monifieth's biggest single cost was the laptops plus basic software.

Other items that were costed in were headphones, staff development (releasing staff to develop ICT materials), dataloggers (pound;2k) and software (pound;3k).

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