Joining in the excitement

28th April 1995 at 01:00
John Stringer considers an inspiring primary science series. You can't turn on the box on Saturday night without being treated to audience participation, whether it is volunteers being put through the stresses of Blind Date or a challenge from the Gladiators, without going through someone's house with Lloyd Grossman, or suffering along with the innocent victims of Jeremy Beadle.

This Game for a Laugh approach has been hijacked with considerable success for Science Zone, the 9 to 11-year-olds element of the BBC Primary Science project.

If you are tackling forces with this age group this summer or looking at fitness and health, or addressing environmental issues, then you will find the summer Science Zone programmes stimulating and exciting. In each one, a lively presenter is given a challenge from a triathlon event in "Fit for Life" to joining the Olympic bobsleigh team in "Smooth Running".

The programme uses the challenge as a narrative theme, driving it along through other "zones".

The Demo-zone looks at possible classroom activities; the Movie-zone looks at wider examples, for example illustrating concepts about forces with the famous Blue Peter sequence with a runaway baby elephant; the Data-zone looks at figures the speed and acceleration of a falling stunt artist; and the Micro-zone introduces high magnification an invaluable tool in explaining friction effects.

In television-speak, the production values are very high. That means that no corners have been cut, with the bobsleigh run in Norway alone being covered by 20 track-side cameras.

The triathlon takes place in Lanzarote and there was a distinct lack of sympathy from my family when the presenter said that the pool water was cold.

The environmental challenge is in Belize, with the famous Coral Cay Conservation group. There are moments of real drama such as the tension before Vicky Kimm is dropped 20 metres in a lifeboat. The graphics are sharp and crystal clear, and carefully chosen to add to understanding.

What makes good schools television? There is a long-running debate about the value of sequences set in the classroom. For me, classroom sequences have always been the moment when children have paid the greatest attention, as they know that the moment the programme has ended, they will be doing these activities themselves. But I can sympathise with children who are niggled by classroom sequences "I wouldn't do it that way", "look at that twit", and by teachers who say they see quite enough of classrooms without having to suffer them on screen.

These programmes have no classroom sequences. But in taking that road, are they actually divorcing themselves from reality? What do you do when you've turned the programmes off? This is the moment when the teachers' notes should help you to make the connection, and I'm not sure they do.

The activities are sound, reliable, and familiar, but the links between the video sequences and the activities are tenuous; and when you're tackling really tricky areas like friction, that's not enough.

Forces activities can throw up so many anomalies; and it's hard enough explaining the behaviour of a training shoe, let alone an Olympic bobsleigh.

Nonetheless, as a starter, or as a review of what has been learnt elsewhere, Science Zone is brilliant. It gives fresh and exciting dimensions to the teaching of primary science.

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