Roger Frost looks at science software that is informative without being gimmicky. Science Explorer CD-Rom for PC or Acorn, Pounds 34.99 from education suppliers or Yorkshire International Thomson Multimedia (YITM), The TV Centre, Leeds, LS3 1JS. Tel: 0113 2438283 Age 8-11
Games for Life CD-Rom for PC, Pounds 10 (cheque with order) from The Wellcome Trust, Games for Life, Wellcome Centre for Medical Science, 210 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE, Age 13+
Corel Chemlab CD-Rom for PC, Pounds 40 from retail outlets, Age 16-18
There has been a need for software that covers lots of science, at the right level, and with just a touch of flare. You will find lots of home titles that mix learning with distraction, but Science Explorer - a title expressly meant for the classroom - looks like filling that need, while managing to stay on task.
It covers topics such as animals, space, forces, materials and electricity. It is like an interactive science centre where you visit galleries and explore things. You might send a pupil to the forces gallery where they can click on an exhibit and they will get a two-minute lesson on pushes and pulls, gravity and balancing forces. It tells them how they float in the swimming pool, and how they float in a hot air balloon. It reads and shows them the text, and the tricky words they can click on and read a description. Like a good textbook, it articulates the points carefully.
After that, they might read a bit more on their own or try a quiz or an experiment. So under "Floating and Sinking" they play with different shapes of boat - a raft, a shallow boat and a deep boat and load them with cargo until they go glug. They can make the boat in wood, metal or plastic and see the difference it makes. The science here - changing variables of weight or shape, and seeing how it affects a boat, is fine. You might send groups to go find out about stuff, get them take notes - as they can in the program - and gather round to pool ideas.
Elsewhere in the galleries they can find pictures, click and take in a fact, but it's the experiments here that will attract the most clicks - there's a reaction time tester, a bicycle to make in different materials and test for strength, and an electrical circuit maker. Also, they can breed plants, compare braking distance on wet and dry roads, put a satellite in orbit if they get its speed right and see how a population of rabbits and foxes change over time. It is not all good: a couple of crucially useful activities to teach about seasons, day and night don't explain too well what's going on.
A nice school feature is that when they sign in, it keeps track of where they've been, as well as any pictures or text they collect. There is also a museum plan and a topic catalogue that lets you find exhibits easily.
Here then is a good balance of science topics, and things to find out. To say it is easy to dive into, well designed but restrained in gimmickry, is to say that it has lots that other CD-Roms, so keen to impress, seem to miss.
Next comes a disc which is everything to do with science centres - it is the very software used in London's Science for Life centre in Euston. The disc offers five short computer activities from this Wellcome Trust-funded centre. Each is well suited to the usual situation of one computer in the classroom. A nice quick activity is "Under Control" where you have to adjust a person's sweating and shivering to keep their temperature right.
It proves easier to think about than do, as is trying to tweak his heart and breathing rates to keep his blood pressure and carbon dioxide level right. The odds are he will pop his cork and you be told that it's due to hypothermia or whatever. Never mind, he died making a good teaching point.
Another short one looks at human variation: it asks you for your eye colour, tells you the percentage of people that have the feature, as well as how it is inherited. It stores your record too, so you might get the class to add their details too. The idea is sound, and makes ideas about human variation quite clear. The other programs, which you can floppy-copy on to an old PC, look at proteins, body organs and biological research. If they had cost more, they would still be worthwhile, because here are a few straightforward, time-limited ideas to slot into a lesson.
And so finally to chemistry, which, should anyone remember, used to be big in the Eighties. I liked it, I taught it, then something in the curriculum happened and - bang there wasn't much left.
Rumour has it that the safety goggles people came along and really cleaned it up. But here to the rescue is Corel's Chemlab, taking the love of chemistry sets on to the computer, and giving you a chemistry lab to play in and reminisce. Imagine now acids, glassware, a pH meter, a heater and a Geiger counter. You pick up a beaker, pour in some acid, and test it with indicator. You fill the burette, drip acid on to alkali and see a pH curve. You change the acid for a weaker one, and try again. There are loads of experiments, so as you follow the instructions you can measure radioactive decay, the power of the heater or investigate the classic "iodine clock reaction".
There are hundreds of molecules to view and rotate, film clips of forbidden fun with explosive tri-nitroiodide, writing with highly reactive phosphorus, and a hydrogen and chlorine cannon which of course goes bang.
And then there are beakers to break, nitroglyerine to drop, and goggles should you need them. Gone are the smells and burning, the magic changes before your eyes and the fear that it could all blow up in your face.
Call me irresponsible, but I'm close to suggesting this fun Canadian title offers a lot of learning, despite its obvious place in the home. Although there are plenty of distractions, a keen student could benefit. They'll never again say chemistry stinks.