Learning through animating

14th March 1997 at 00:00
A girl is drawing the sun on screen. "If the water from the pond heats up, it will evaporate into the air," she says. "But draw a cloud as well," adds her partner. "We need that if it is to cool down."

In a class of 11-year-olds in a Hackney primary school, pupils are studying the water cycle. They have done experiments, read about it, discussed it. Some are drawing, some writing. Four pupils are animating the water cycle on the computer. They have drawn one animation of a number of consecutive screens showing the water evaporating bit by bit into the air. Another animation shows the rain falling as it hits the clouds and cools down. They continue to animate the ice freezing over and we see a skater gliding across the frozen pond. "When the air warms up, the ice begins to crack," one girl speaks into the microphone. "Aah, aah, help, help!" yells another.

A secondary science lab in Hackney. Two 14-year-olds are animating the reactions of the elements in the periodic table. They've either done experiments of these reactions or seen them demonstrated. They have animated a piece of lithium being dropped in water, and it fizzes.

They move on to sodium and animate a small explosion. "It's not that colour, is it?", asks one pupil, "Now, which one had the purple flame, sodium or potassium?" They look at their text book and find rubidium. They hadn't seen a demonstration of this (rubidium is not generally kept in science labs!) They guess at what might happen if rubidium is dropped in water. They add a voice over to the animation showing the container exploding, "You might notice that as you go down the periodic table the reactions get bigger and bigger."

Pupils in the borough of Hackney have been taking part in a project called Using Animation to Help Develop Scientific Concepts. This has covered a wide range of topics: electricity; light; measurement; construction; the movement of the sun and moon; materials; how animals move and eat; plant germination, dispersal and growth; blood circulation; digestion; the senses. If science is about observing our world and noticing how things happen, if it's about movement and change, then animating these ideas could fit anywhere in the science curriculum.

Teachers often say that drawing (let alone animating) on the computer is time-consuming. Pupils say it's harder than drawing on paper. They may be right. However, what is important is the discussion that occurs during the animating. It does not often happen off the computer that two pupils will draw one picture between them. The collaboration on the computer needs intense concentration and discussion.

In order to animate a toucan flying, you will need to know if it flaps or glides, if it hops on the branch or takes off immediately, how many claws it has and how it holds on to the branch. This is the on-task discussion. In the periodic table project the pupils began by presenting what they had already learned, but then continued by speculating about what might happen if . . . and then finding out and animating that. The form of presentation is offering them an opportunity not only to relay what they know but also to continue to develop their understanding and knowledge.

We're back to that old delight of discovery learning, which is one of the fundamental reasons for doing experiments in science. If pupils can continue this discovery in the way they present their work, it is surely an added bonus. Doing is remembered more strongly than reading or seeing, and the write-up has become another form of doing.

In assessing the importance of pupils using multimedia to present their work in science, it is important to remember, however, that it is a faithful description of where their understanding is at that particular time. It may not be the explanation with the greatest clarity or accuracy, and it may well not be perfect.

Presenting experiments in this way takes imagination as well as understanding, which brings the creative qualities we use in the arts closer to school science work. And don't we all know that science is about creative thinking? These Hackney pupils have shown that it can be presented that way, too.

* The author is an advisory teacher for IT in Hackney. The science work was done using HyperStudio, amultimedia authoring package that can be obtained from TAG Developments (Tel: 01474 357350). The work will be produced on CD in April, and can be bought from: Vivi Lachs, Hackney Professional Development Centre, Queensbridge Building, Albion Drive, London E8 4ET; e-mail vlachs@rmplc. co.uk

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