Douglas Blane reports on how the new Science Online Support Network provides an exciting service for schools.
From the food we eat to the babies we conceive, science touches our lives in so many ways, and has become such a multi-faceted collection of knowledge and activities, that "leave it to the experts" sometimes seems the only sensible response. But it isn't. Experts make mistakes, they work to their own agendas, and sometimes they deliberately try to mislead. So all of us need to be able to grasp the issues well enough to arrive at our own conclusions. The responsibility for laying the foundations of understanding that children need to grow into adults who can think critically about science falls squarely on poor old primary teachers.
It's a heavy burden, one with which teachers readily admit they need as much help as they can get. There is no shortage of material - the Internet is awash with science, from Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Institute to images of planets at NASA. But structuring information into usable lessons that deliver the curriculum takes time.
Now help is on the way in the form of the Science Online Support Network (SOLSN), managed by the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre (SSERC). SOLSN consists of a CD containing lesson plans and worksheets covering all the 5-14 science attainment outcomes and key features, together with descriptions and images of equipment, and links to relevant websites. The disc also contains a monthly magazine of field and classroom ideas.
A Scottish Executive-funded evaluation of the SOLSN pilot study, which involved 10 schools in three authorities, has just been published by the Scottish Council for Research in Education. It concludes that "SOLSN simultaneously increased teachers' confidence with ICT and with teaching science in primary schools".
When asked to identify SOLSN's best features, teachers also mention that it contains a progression of lessons in science 5-14 from Primary to 7, that connections between knowledge, activities and resources are much easier to grasp when navigating the material on a computer, and that the web browser lets them move easily between the CD and relevant resources on the Internet.
"The Renfrewshire 5-14 Science Pack, which the CD is based on, is an excellent source of material," says Janette Kean, acting assistant headteacher at Linlithgow Primary in West Lothian.
"It helps teachers who maybe don't have a lot of confidence with planning and lesson preparation. And it has all been made visually appealing on the CD."
In West Lothian the resource was trialled in a cluster of Linlithgow Academy and its associated primary schools, which allowed the secondary science department to act as a source of advice via e-mail to the primary teachers.
"I thought this was a good model," says Dr Jack Jackson, the HM inspector responsible for science. "The worry about an online service is whether the supplier can support all the questions they are likely to get, but if you set it up on the basis of a secondary school linked in with the associated primary schools it's a lot more likely to be sustainable over time."
Having completed a feasibility and pilot study of SOLSN, supported by the Scottish Executive and Edinburgh, West Lothian and Fife education authorities, the various stakeholders in the project are keen to proceed to the next development phase and thence to a national roll-out.
By the year 2002 the aim is to have all material on a site along with a prep room where schools can submit and study samples of lesson plans and pupils' work, and an online forum for ideas.
Teachers can see a demo of the SOLSN project at the Fusion 2000 conference, organised by Learning and Teaching Scotland at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, Glasgow on September 26. For information on SOLSN, contact SSERC, St Mary's Building, 23 Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AE, tel: 0131 558 8180