Questions of evidence

27th September 1996 at 01:00
Roger Frost shows how information technology can make the investigating part of the science curriculum come alive.

Unpacking the national curriculum I've just invented a neat way of assessing budding scientists. You just ask your promising pupils a brilliantly simple question that sorts them out into those who just know their facts and those who really can think scientifically.

I haven't thought of the question yet, but I reckon that it needs to spot the difference between pupils who are happy knowing that say, "Jupiter has 12 moons" and those that wonder why, by Jove, it has so many. This amazing question will also prompt a true scientist into searching out facts and figures about the planets. While it will not wash with the assessment people, the idea is at least a clue to why there's so much emphasis on the "Experimental and Investigative Science" pages of the curriculum - pages which say that there is more to science than knowing stuff - we value the business of thinking and finding out.

Elsewhere in the curriculum is Information Technology, looking much like another set of imperatives. But looking at it another way, IT is a set of tools which can help budding scientists think, find out and start to flower. So when we get pupils planning experiments, obtaining evidence, and considering evidence - the "-ing" words of science - maybe they can use a CD-Rom to swot up the planets. Or maybe they could use IT to draw graphs and test ideas such as "big planets have more moons", or "big planets have more gravity". IT then isn't an issue or a burden, it's more a way of taking pupils further.

Planning experiments For example, it's one thing to be asked to write about an investigation you've just done, but it's quite another to plan one that hasn't even taken shape in your head.

The word processor, something that most classrooms already have, can help ideas to take shape. It allows children to jot things down, in whatever order they come to mind, and later flesh them out. And it allows them to work as a team, as if sharing a pencil, discussing and improving things as they go.

But even teams of children get keyboard-struck in front of a blank screen. To help them you can first use the word processor to make them an investigation planning worksheet. At the top of this put headings like name, title and date to start them typing. While underneath you put in a series of questions like "what are you trying to find out? What will you measure? What do you expect to happen? Is your test fair?" There's no need to be original here - you'll find similar questions, to copy and use, in most published science schemes.

Considering evidence Graph drawing programs are the single most useful tool for "considering evidence" in science.

They allow children to present their results as tables, pie charts and bar charts and there are legions of these programs on Acorn machines. On the PC, the excellent Counter for Windows (BlackCat) will serve primaries from infants all the way to the top.

Children might then investigate whether granny would be safer wearing trainers in the wet. They can measure how "slippy" different shoes are using a forcemeter. They can enter their results straight into a program and then start to tackle some questions: Which type of graph helps compare the shoes? Which shoes are the best? Are any other shoes nearly as good? And even, would granny trust your results? All of these questions point to national curriculum "-ing" words such as recording, comparing, and graphing. But without the computer, and with pencils, rulers and blunted felt-tips we rarely get this far.

Getting results The new IT tools for primary schools are computer sensors - devices which measure temperature and sound levels and show them directly on a graph.

There's a certain magic about making a sound and seeing a line shoot up the screen. It's magic because it's an excellent way to introduce graphs - long before you might do this formally. It's useful because this is an excellent tool to use in investigations such as ways to cool your cocoa, and, the teacher's favourite, finding how long the class can keep quiet.

And as they look at their graphs to find the answers, and annotate them by hand, they'll unconsciously identify trends, draw conclusions, find evidence to support predictions just as the curriculum demands. When children are using sensors in these ways, "testing ideas" and "controlling variables" are almost built into the process.

Still, I've not thought of my question, but I do want to end on one: "Why do children spend so much time writing things out neatly and colouring in graphs when IT could free them from all that and take them much deeper into real science?" Roger Frost is the author of IT in Primary Science. Distributed by ASE Book Sales


Curriculum materials The National Council for Educational Technology Tel: 01203 416994 ASE BOOK SALES College Lane, Hatfield Herts AL10 9AA Tel: 01707 271216 Planning experiments with a word processor Considering evidence with graph drawing programs BlackCat Software, The Barn, Cwm Camlais Brecon, Powys LD3 8TD Tel: 01874 636835. Xemplar The Quorum, Barnwell Road, Cambridge, CB5 8RE Tel: 01223 724724 Getting results with sensors Commotion, Unit 11 Tannery Road Tonbridge, Kent TN9 1RF Tel: 01732 773399 Data Harvest Woburn Lodge, Waterloo Road, Linslade, Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire LU7 7NR.

Tel: 01525 373666 NES Arnold Ludlow Hill Road, West Bridgford, Nottingham NG2 6HD Tel: 0115 945 2200

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