The pluck of the Irish

23rd June 1995 at 01:00
IRISH SCIENTISTS AND INVENTORS. Age group: 8-12. Channel 4, Tuesdays, 11.00-11.20am. Teachers' guide, Pounds 3.95. Pupils' book, Pounds 3. "Northern Ireland Scientists and Inventors", teachers' book with background information, Pounds 4.95. Educational Television Company, PO Box 100, Warwick CV34 6TZ.

History is littered with unsung heroes. Men and women who have made contributions to human knowledge which changed the world, and still have a continuing impact on our lives today. This series, which finished last week, has highlighted the lives and achievements of five such men, all of whom were born in Ireland. Some are well known, such as John Boyd Dunlop who gave his name to the famous tyre, and Sir Hans Sloane whose astonishing collection of artefacts and books formed the foundation of the British Museum in London.

But did you also know that Sir Hans was the first doctor to develop an approach to medicine which looked for causes of illness, and sought remedies among the plant kingdom?

Less well known are the likes of John Clarke, William Traill and Robert Praeger. It was John Clarke who discovered a remedy for the potato blight, and bred disease-resistant potatoes which now feed a large proportion of the world's population. Traill invented a tram driven by hydro-electric power, Praeger was a committed botanist who wanted to encourage people to protect the environment.

The stories of these men form the central theme of five beautifully-presented science programmes. They are all visually attractive, relying heavily on the Irish landscape as a backdrop. However, they address discoveries, scientific principles and applications which have relevance to people the world over. Among them they touch every topic of the curriculum. Although designed primarily for Northern Ireland, where they have additional cultural significance, the programmes are equally relevant to the rest of the United Kingdom.

The commentary is particularly appealing. The stories are told with an easy style, yet the facts are delivered clearly and accurately. This is a rare combination as schools science programmes often fall into the dual trap of either being rather dry albeit accurate, or in an attempt to be zany, distort scientific content beyond recognition. The only possible problem is that the narrator's accent and occasional use of the vernacular, which while easy on the ear, may be difficult for non-Irish children to understand.

The support materials which accompany the series are clear and well presented. They include worksheets and suggested ways of presenting the material. This includes key points and questions the teacher may use to start discussions with children.

These questions are especially welcome. The key to good science teaching is effective questioning and this is a challenge to non-specialists in science, which most primary teachers feel they are. The worksheets are interesting and draw on a cluster of related activities which spring from each programme. These would fit neatly into a topic-based approach to primary work. That can sometimes be a challenge with a risk of science activities becoming rather contrived to fit a theme.

All in all, the series is a must for schools in Northern Ireland, but should not be ignored in the rest of the United Kingdom, as it offers a fresh approach to many topics which is more than can be said for most primary science material flooding on to the market at the moment.

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