How to manage a class of Klingons

18th October 1996 at 01:00
Spock would never have taken chances so why should you? Roger Frost offers some practical advice on introducing IT in the lab

I forget who said that the science we teach in school has more to do with the last century than anything happening today. Never mind who - most of us have thought it at some point. We've thought about our school laboratories which, beside the image of science on television, look pretty arcane. And just as we've thought that information technology might be able to help, the pips went to remind us that it's time to get on with teaching.

I know a teacher who is making his science lab look like the Starship Enterprise. Looks aside, the important part of his bringing science up to date is that the children use IT. When they visit his flight deck of wall-to-wall technology they use the machines to draw graphs, make measurements and get information.

The technology isn't there to labour these jobs, or even to develop IT skills. Putting being modern aside, the IT is there to enhance the subject and extend classical science skills.

If owning a Starship is for the future, using what you have shouldn't be so far off. It really doesn't need a fleet of computers, or scores of missions with them to move forward. It does, however, need something to help look at situations where people aren't - like an interesting bit of science. If using IT were like trying to cause a chemical reaction, the reactants would be the computers you need and the science teaching you want to do.

So if you have just one machine, you can demonstrate the cooling effect of alcohol or measure how the pulse changes with exercise. You could also develop a good discussion, and some good science from that. If you have many more computers, a whole class will be able to do this.

In each scenario the products are different: the whole class situation is obviously more exciting, but both reactions are desirable and move us forward. The bigger issue is the activation energy needed for things to take place. Sad but true: a number of schools had the necessary equipment but lacked what's really needed to make change happen. The way over the energy barrier needed various measures of support from school management, team spirit, planning or enthusiasm. For example, at Verulam School in Hertfordshire the science department won a bid to get a mix of laptop computers, palmtop computers and data-logging equipment.

A couple of staff tried out the equipment, taking it home to play with and prepare help sheets. Once they felt comfortable with it they ran a lesson using other staff as a friendly set of pupils so they could see what might go wrong in class. Still not taking chances, when they tried it with real pupils they improved their odds on success by having two or three teachers in the lesson. Other staff borrowed the equipment, taking it home, identifying good IT lessons - just a few - which they could build into their work schemes.

The step-by-step approach of the head of science, Martin King, helped to reduce that first leap over the activation energy barrier. While his chemists might have wanted to measure pH and the biologists wanted to measure oxygen, he advises against this as a first try. He said: "These are very tricky to set up. It is easier to start by using temperature probes to look at things cooling or using light gates to measure the speed of toy cars." One successful experiment was to use a bundle of test tubes with hot water to show why penguins huddle.

Here then is a clue for the rest of us: if the barrier is too high, and there is less support than at Verulum, dig under it by choosing more realistic experiments to do. Frankly the thought of managing a class of children, computers, sensors and Bunsen burners is an act of bravery, even for a Klingon.

So those with less support and less equipment need not despair: with a single machine you can demonstrate exothermic reactions, or run a race to see who can use friction to warm their hands fastest. Those who find data logging fiddly can draw a graph using a spreadsheet. Those who prefer to become expert in private can use the machine to prepare teaching materials. Just insist on a really good printer - at Pounds 300 it is not much to ask for. And while you are asking for money, ask if you can hook the computer up to a large television as this makes such a difference. At around Pounds 150 for the gizmo, it is fair compensation for having only one machine.

Getting support from the sort of people who know how to set a phaser on stun and are prepared to show you how, are worth seeking out. Just like those first lessons at Verulam, a science colleague, or an A-level student can lightly hold the controls. Hopefully, you will meet a helper happy to take the blame and who does not undermine you if there is a crash.

If you are prepared for a trip to the computer room, there are a few very good sets of data you can take there for a whole class to analyse. Martin King suggests using a position sensor to do the pendulum experiment. It takes a minute or so to collect some data which students can analyse using data-logging software such as Insight. They can measure the swing period and see what factors affect it. If it is an advanced group they can plot acceleration and velocities.

You can find many other ideas, like looking at room temperature changes over a day, at the Schools OnLine Science pages on the Internet. Over time, science departments have built up a portfolio of party pieces like these, introduced them to new staff and even used the end of each department meeting to try out new ideas. Eventually, they need to take shape as a formal plan attending more carefully to ideas lsuch as progression.

Sandon High School in Staffordshire had to do this when staff decided to go further than most and use science to deliver all the school's IT imperatives. Since September, every Year 10 science class has spent one lesson a week in the computer room and this will continue through Year 11. The IT co-ordinator, Jill Swallow, has planned the skills, sketched out the lessons and worked through them with the science staff. There is a database activity on metals, a spreadsheet activity on energy in the home, even a data-logging activity on home insulation.

It is a hard task for sure, but the combination of planning, support and team work is taking their use of IT through to a successful, well-controlled explosion. In a mixed-ability profession, we need to see success as relative and set goals in line with our resources. There are catalysts to progress - precious materials like money that buy support, that feeds enthusiasm, that makes the process go into warp drive.

* Roger Frost will be talking at the 10th Resource Conference in Doncaster on Friday November 22. He is the author of several books about using IT in science teaching.



* The IT in Secondary science book and Data logging and control. Pounds 16.50 each including postage from Association for Science Education Booksales, College Lane, Hatfield. AL10 9AA. Tel: 01707 267411 Activities

* Schools Online Science at with case studies and worksheets: * Enhancing Science with IT pack. Pounds 22.50 from National Council for Educational Technology, Milburn Hill Road, Science Park, Coventry CV4 7JJ. Tel: 01203 416994 * Science information sheets: free from NCET and also on the Internet at * Data logging software: Insight for MacWindows and Acorn from Longman Logotron, 124 Cambridge Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge. Tel: 01223 425558 * Roger Frost, IT in Science, 7 Sutton Place, London E9 6EH. TelFax: 0181 986 3526 Email:

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