If you have a strong memory of a school science lesson, the chances are it will have involved a practical experiment. In my case, it was a (doomed) attempt to generate one horsepower of energy by running up the science block stairs against the physics master's stopwatch.
These days it would be boring watts rather than good old steamy horsepower - and the experiment would probably be in breach of some guidelines or other. Experimental work has declined significantly, pushed out by the need to cover the content of the national curriculum and, unsurprisingly, science is disappointingly unpopular with children.
PRACTICE MAKES PASSION
Against that background, it's refreshing to find, at The Valley school in Stevenage, a science department where children are enthusiastic to the point of real passion. ("Science is my life!" declared one Year 9 child, who went on to tell me exactly which aspects of the subject were his particular favourites.) The Valley is a secondary special school for 170 children with a range of learning difficulties. Science is headed by Andrew McCarthy, who takes full advantage of the small classes and high quality adult support to run a practical curriculum.
"For example, in Year 7, every pupil will learn to safely boil a beaker of water. We use that to observe bubbles forming and the water changing from a liquid to a gas," he says.
The children go on to make tea, taking notes and drawing graphs of the temperature changes as the teabag is added and the liquid cools.
Given this emphasis on experience, it would be easy to assume that ICT plays a limited role. In fact, the opposite is true. ICT is supportive of practical work. The department provides an internet-based homework link for children, as well as, for example, making extensive use of digital photography for recording and sequencing investigations.
This made The Valley's science department a natural choice to join the pilot of Living with Science, a suite of science software designed for children with learning difficulties.
Developed by Special Steps - a team of programmers and educators - and funded by the national lottery-supported National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (www.nesta.org.uk), Living with Science aims to fill a gap in provision.
Dr John Baxter, who leads the project, says: "The general feedback from teachers is that e-learning for pupils with special needs hasn't kept pace with that in mainstream education, particularly in science."
Living with Science is a modular CD-Rom resource covering topics identified by teachers: healthy eating, Earth and the seasons, home science, health and the community, and shopping. There is also a collection of quizzes and puzzles that cover all the topics. These can be used to aid assessment, although self assessment is a theme in all the topics.
LET THEM EAT CAKE
The approach is highly visual. The images are, in effect, interactive investigations carried out on the computer. They are clear, logical and fun. So, for example, in healthy eating, it is possible to feed a digestive tract with cake to the point where it becomes graphically sick.
There are also exercises in which children create healthy meals to a budget, and one where a person has to be dressed in suitable clothing for the weather. (Get it wrong and the victim sweats or shivers appropriately.) The emphasis is on enquiry and exploration - what it means, why it happens, what more there is to be learned.
The challenge has been to develop a product that is relevant, lively and accessible, yet is grounded in good science. John Baxter says: "The aim is not to dilute it down to the point of irrelevance."
The software can be widely modified to suit the needs of individuals - for example, background colours and text size can be changed.
Many features have been developed during the two year pilot that has been running in ten schools. So detailed has been the involvement of the schools that, effectively, teachers and pupils are part of the development team.
STUDENTS AS DESIGNERS
"The pupils have enjoyed being part of the pilot, knowing they were helping the designers," says Andrew McCarthy. As a result of their involvement, all manner of modifications have been made to the original concept - the elimination of drag and drop as a means of moving graphics around, for instance (because some children can't do it accurately), and its replacement by single mouse clicks.
Children have made corrections to the content, too, says McCarthy. "They noticed that a graphic about taking the temperature of water shows a wood-mounted thermometer. They pointed out that a wooden thermometer wouldn't be used in water like that."
Resources of this kind can be used in various ways - they can speed up drawn-out processes of growth and change through time-lapse photo sequences, or they can model procedures that are done for real. The children at The Valley had the Living with Science bread-making module open on a laptop while they were making bread. "They worked in tandem with the software," says McCarthy. "It was there to guide them."
The children at The Valley are clearly familiar with and enthusiastic about the software. It presents them with scenarios they recognise and can tackle individually - planning a meal, choosing the right clothes for extreme weather, observing the changing seasons - and guides them as they investigate just what is happening.
Baxter says the aim is to hand control to the students. "Many of them can't get out and about in the real world, but technology can bring the world to them. It gives them a sense of independence, the chance to take charge and make decisions."
LIVING WITH SCIENCE OFFER
Living with Science will be available in April - details at www.specialsteps.com
* Prices: The healthy eating, Earth and the seasons, home science, and health and the community CD-Roms cost pound;29.99 each, plus pound;59.99 for a site licence. The science challenges and shopping CDs cost pound;19.99 each, plus pound;39.99 for a site licence. The complete set of CDs is available for pound;119.99 plus pound;239.99 for a site licence (buy six get two free).
* TES readers are offered a special price for the boxed set - pound;69.99 per set plus pound;199.99 for a site licence. Please quote TES Extra for Special Needs with your order.