Reduce the friction

19th May 2006 at 01:00
A website with simulated science experiments can make life much easier in class. Douglas Blane reports

Curling is a sport seldom seen in schools. Even in Scotland, playgrounds rarely get cold enough to provide the 200 square metres of ice needed to play the "roaring game". So at St John the Baptist Primary School, Fauldhouse, the pupils are doing science and simulation, not sport.

As the granite stone on the whiteboard slides towards the concentric circles of the target zone, the class cries "Hurry!", young Erin dutifully sweeps the ice with a broom and the stone hurtles through the "house" to score nothing whatsoever.

On the next stone, the class advice is less confident and no longer unanimous, so the 10-year-old trusts her own judgment, sweeps more circumspectly, and watches in satisfaction as the stone drifts slowly to a halt in the centre of the house for a perfect shot. "Well done," says teacher Mary Woods. "Why does brushing hard in front of the stone make it go farther?"

"It makes the ice smooth."

"And that means?"

"There's less friction."

"That's right. Well done."

Friction is the most expensive, perplexing and inescapable force on earth.

If it could somehow be switched off, machines would run forever, the energy crisis would be solved at a stroke and teachers might, once in a while, convince their pupils that science makes sense and Newton was right.

"You can't do good friction experiments in the classroom," says Mary. "It's not as if I can bring a parachute in to demonstrate air resistance, or practise landing a fighter plane on an aircraft carrier."

But both these demonstrations, and many more, are available to her Primary 6 pupils through a site licence to PrimaryScience.Net. This provides science lessons, games and simulated experiments designed for key stage 2 (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) and 5-14 Levels C-D (Scotland).

"The site contains 50 logically sequenced science lessons and over 400 interactions," says company director and former teacher Alex Duff: "Games, quizzes, simulations, animations, experiments. Each lesson comes with teacher notes that explain the science background in more detail, and suggest how concepts can be extended in a practical way."

All the teachers at St John the Baptist would like to to use the resource, says headteacher Anne Purdie. "We had an in-service for the whole school - because any teacher might have a Primary 5, 6 or 7 class next year. Alex came in and demonstrated the site and what you can do with it. There is so much there. That gives teachers lots of confidence."

"We are planning to extend the resources and make them available for the younger kids," says Alex. "Right now they're specifically for the upper primary school - KS2."

Back in class, Mary's pupils have managed to sink, mangle or smash to pieces four of the navy's finest fighter planes. This is realistic, since landing a plane safely on the deck of a carrier using friction forces from parachutes and brakes is one of the toughest of tasks for a pilot. It is also frustrating, so the pupils move on to a less challenging illustration of friction in action: a man walking into water.

"Tell me about the water," Mary asks the class.

"It's shallow at first then it gets deeper."

"Right, so what will happen to the man?"

"It will get harder for him to walk."

"Let's see."

Sure enough, the jaunty little character strides out confidently enough at the start, with his head high and his arms swinging. But as the water level rises, his progress slows dramatically. Soon the poor chap is struggling to make any headway at all.

"Oh dear," Mary says. "The water is rubbing against him and causingI?"


"And what's that doing?"

"Slowing him down."


While the class works on a reinforcement exercise taken from the website, Mary talks about getting the most out of PrimaryScience.Net: "We have a whiteboard in every class in this school, and these pupils would normally have one laptop between two of them - but unfortunately the network has some kind of problem this morning. But as you can seen, the kids really enjoy the simulations, games and experiments on the whiteboard.

"I often use what are supposed to be homework exercises for assessment.

I've noticed that kids tend to do better when answering questions online.

They are more motivated, I think, and find it easier than writing laboriously in their jotters.

"Another thing I like is the response from Alex if we have questions. He gets back quickly and has been out to the school several times since we got our licence. Computer people aren't always that responsive."

While the human body, with its simulations of respiration, circulation, excretion and even reproduction, gets the class vote as the most interesting and enjoyable part of PrimaryScience.Net, friction is also popular.

"I like all the games you get to play," says Sophie.

"Friction is a kind of force, which means it can speed things up or slow them down or make them change direction," explains young Kiera, with commendable accuracy.

Aaron enjoys experiments on the whiteboard, he says, "because they usually work better than if you do them in class".

Coloured drawings of two contrasting cars on the wall catch the eye, so Erin kindly explains the thoughts of their designer: "This one is more streamlined, which means it's longer and skinnier. So it can go faster.

"That's because air pushes back at you as you're moving through it. My dad's car looks nothing like that unfortunately. That is my dream car."

This kind of creative or investigative work improves understanding and helps pupils retain ideas, says Mary.

"I often let them research a scientific topic on the computers, using Safe Google, before we do a science lesson or simulation. By this age they are pretty good at separating the wheat from the chaff you get online in any subject.

"PrimaryScience.Net is very popular with the kids, and they'll often ask if they can do some of the activities when they've finished other work. It's good value too.

"We sometimes get people in to give science shows, which the pupils really enjoy. But for the cost of one show the whole school can use PrimaryScience.Net every day for a year."


50 interactive lessons with teachers' notes aimed at KS2, and 5-14 levels C-D; 400 interactionsactivitiesexperiments; 42 homework exercises with marking scheme; interactive science glossary. Site licence with unlimited access Pounds 100 a year. Free trial for schools allowing 10 logins.

Click on Advanced Search, then choose Filter using SafeSearch for child-friendly filtering that removes unsavoury sites.

Easily installed website traffic analysis and hit counter used on PrimaryScience.Net Currently showing visitors from US, Taiwan, Spain, Ghana and Malaysia. Earth and ocean science resources for teachers from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

Website for improving science education 5-14. Aimed at teachers in Scotland, but has useful resources for science at KS1 and 2.

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