5th May 2000 at 01:00
SCIENCE QUESTIONS SERIES: Upside Down Seeds. The Snowman's Coat. The Seesaw. Bungee Jumpers. By Brenda and Stuart Naylor. Illustrated by Ged Mitchell. Hodder hb pound;9.99 pb pound;4.99, Snowman's Coat Big Book pound;14.99.

Does it matter if we plant the seeds upside down? Will a coat melt our snowman or keep him frozen? Will the lost coin show up in the dark? And will the biggest bungee jumper fall the fastest?

Not so simple as they first appear, these are some of the questions posed in a new series of books designed to get young children and adults thinking and talking about the applications of science in our everyday lives.

The authors, husband and wife team, Brenda and Stuart Naylor, are both former science teachers. Brendawas a primary teacher witha background in environmental science,and Stuart was a secondary biology teacher and nowtrains teachers at Manchester metropolitan university.

They developed their idea of the "concept cartoon" as a way of initiating scientific discussion when working with primary teachers in 1992. A cartoon-style picture sets up a scientific challenge: are sounds louder if you make someone big ears? Cartoon people, in speech bubbles, suggest different hypotheses.

"The visual image seems to help children and adults get access to the ideas." says Brenda Naylor. "It's also a way of showing a range of possible answers, some more scientifically acceptable than others. People can come to it at their own level."

Two years ago, concept cartoons made it big when, with funding from GlaxoWellcome and the Institute of Physics, they developed them into Science on the Underground, a series of science posters displayed in 4,000 London Underground carriages.

These prompted a resourceful Hodder editor to ask the Naylors whether their concept coul be adapted into books for infant school children. Science Questions, a series of four, are the result, and they lend themselves both to reading in the home and in the classroom (with teacher's notes and a big book of The Snowman's Coat).

Each book introduces four scientific topics through a simple storyline, liberally sprinkled with prompts such as "What do you think?" and "Let's find out more".

The characters follow up the questions with small-scale experiments (which can be done at home), present their findings, and, at the back of the book, suggest further avenues to explore. The text introduces some key vocabulary - temperature, condensation, insulator - but scientific explanation is kept to an absolute minimum.

"It's important for us to get people talking about science, and engaging with the material without feeling intimidated," says Brenda Naylor. "As ex-teachers, we don't feel it's necessary to fill their heads with science: we're just trying to get them curious. If they want to learn more, they will."

Stuart Naylor emphasises the importance of the story element in the books. "Measuring shadows, for instance, by putting a stick in the playground, is almost too trivial, and too obvious, to do by itself. But if you link the practical bit with the story, it gives children a much greater sense of purpose."

My five-year-old devoured all four books, hazarding a mixture of correct and incorrect predictions, and turning over the page eagerly to find out more. But she showed no particular desire to conduct the experiments herself.

This does not matter, however, according to Brenda Naylor. "The most important thing is getting the children to talk to you about it. The books are there to be used in as many ways as people want."

Diana Hinds

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