Portable experiments

9th January 1998 at 00:00
Robust, movable computers are the answer in science, reports Angela McFarlane.

COULD it be that after all these years, information and communications technology (ICT) in science has finally taken off? The word is that the leading suppliers of data-logging equipment to schools are thriving, so schools must be buying the kit. A Department for Education and Employment bulletin published this year shows that at least 50 per cent of schools rate ICT as making some contribution to teaching and learning in science.

Managing the use of ICT in a science lesson is still problematic. The science activity, often involving additional equipment, must naturally remain the key focus of the lesson. That rules out a trip to the computer room, assuming there is one and that it is available and not booked up by ICT and maths.

If you bring computers to the science lesson in the quantity they are needed, you quickly run out of space for the other equipment and even the children. Where access is required episodically - for parts of a lesson, and in the midst of other activities - portable computers have to be the answer. But these are expensive and hard-pressed to withstand the wear and tear they get in schools. Revisiting a school I worked with evaluating portables, managed by the National Council for Educational Technology some five years ago, I found that all but one of their portables had "died". Despite the firm allegiance of staff in the science department, who felt the portables had been wonderful, and the proof of learning gains we had documented, the school had decided not to invest in more portables.

There was a similar story in a primary school which took part in the same project. They would like to replace their portables, but the funds just "aren't available". Their best hope for new computers this year is another desktop PC from a supermarket scheme.

So is the picture of portables for science a receding dream? Happily not. As always with ICT, the kit rapidly gets better and cheaper. The gap between the capabilities of portable and palmtop computers is shrinking in many important ways, and compatibility with desktop machines is improving. These machines, at under Pounds 500 for the deluxe models, have to be worth considering for science (and indeed other areas of the curriculum).

They have all the generic capability needed for science; word processing, powerful spreadsheets (sometimes with better line-graphing capability than some desktop software) and even good data-logging. The best machines have easy connectivity to a printer or desktop if needed. Make sure that for science you choose a machine that will print graphics or getting hard copy of your graphs may prove problematic. Unlike the larger and more delicate desktop equivalent portables, these smaller machines have proved robust in school use.

Make sure you see these machines - BETT '98 offers an ideal opportunity to look at all the options. Xemplar, Psion and Hewlett Packard (sold by RM) seem to be the obvious starting points. You should also visit the data-logging suppliers to see what they are offering to go with the palmtops - check out Curriculum Warehouse, a new venture by Lego Dacta and Commotion, Data Harvest, Economatics, Griffin and Philip Harris.

The palmtops will generally not run curriculum-oriented software applications or CD-Roms, and are unlikely to be a viable way of accessing the Internet in school. These functions are less likely to be required during a practical investigation, however. Here, use of the central computer facility is more realistic.

The problem is knowing what software is available and whether it's any good before shelling out precious funds. Independent advice is hard to come by, or at least it was. Help is at hand in the form of Roger Frost's new publication, Software for Teaching Science. At last someone who has looked at the software, and understands about using ICT in science, has stuck his neck out to tell you not only what you can buy but whether you would want to. This isn't a purely arbitrary rating either - Frost spells out at the start of the book exactly what he is looking for in a good piece of software, and how it should fit into the teaching and learning of science. Each title gets a snowflake rating, with few actually achieving the top four flakes. The sad fact seems to be that, although there is great promise for teaching and learning science through simulations or other educational software, or the provision of information on CD-Rom, few products actually fulfil this potential. There are some gems, though, which are well worth finding. Roger Frost (IT in Science) has a stand at BETT.

There are some really good resources, hardware and software to support the full range of ICT in science. Trying to do everything at once is clearly impossible. The best strategy is to identify one or two you don't use but would like to, and try them out while you're at the show.

BETT Connections

Data Harvest stand 540

Economatics stand 265

Griffin George stand 729

IT in Science Roger Frost stand C98A

Lego Dacta stands 262, 266

NCET stands 545, 560

Philip HarrisUnilab stands 500, 666

RM stands 131, 132, 215, SN22

Xemplar stands 241, 440, SN9

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