Programmed to ask

27th February 1998 at 00:00
Science, for me, is about asking questions and doing. If a computer is to be of any use, it has to encourage this approach. Unfortunately, computers are good at passively repeating set tasks. These have their place, but are they encompassing the best of science and IT? I don't think so! I am interested in what I can do with software that will give added value to my teaching and my pupils' learning.

Investigations are central to science. The computer has to enable children to record and present their work, yet enrich and focus upon the skills of planning, raising questions, predicting, measuring and explaining their results. You can achieve this with an integrated package containing a spreadsheet and word-processor. Clarisworks (for PC and Mac, from Claris) allows children to combine describing an investigation and presenting the data simply and efficiently. Pupils can draw neat tables and line graphs easily. Repeated readings, totals and averages can be calculated automatically, enabling children to get quickly to the point of analysing and commenting on data. This allows all pupils, irrespective of ability, to produce line graphs and calculate averages. It offers a way to help develop science skills without pupils being hindered by maths difficulties, while a spellchecker lets all children produce high-quali ty reports.

The role of pupils can become a passive one unless teachers plan activities that encourage them to ask questions, discuss, edit information,or look in a book for relevant details.

Computers can provide "virtual worlds" in which children can change parameters, and observe and predict the consequences of their actions. I am particularly interested in software that provides areas of investigation for biology, so my class has "experimented" with artificial life-forms and digital DNA. This has encouraged children to become involved in complex decision making and detailed observation. Other programs allowed them to express scientific ideas through maths and art, and involved subjects as complex as chaos theory, viruses and genetics.

Software and websites should meet the following criteria: are they - l Easy to use and reasonably priced? And do they -- Enhance pupils' science learning?

- Encourage scientific thinking, ideas and questioning?

- Have a familiar format?

- Let pupils develop their own ideas?

A program is no substitute for making circuits, using a thermometer or observing a chemical reaction. If software is not user-friendly, or the hardware is unreliable, I would rather not use it. But, when it is used as a tool, children become active manipulators of information technology, able to express and present ideas and to become its masters. Science and IT can complement each other and enhance the learning of both.

Stuart Ball is science co-ordinator at Llantilio Pertholey primary,Abergavenny and TES Primary Science Teacher of the Year

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