Soft options

14th April 2000 at 01:00
When pupils learn how to work with data they pick up key skills such as research, graphingand classification. Roger Frost takes his pick of the programs that will start 'em young.

It is a sign that computers have moved on when young pupils can use computers like their grown-up pals. And anyone who needs proof that software is opening up what infants can do should look at Numbers, Words and Pictures from BlackCat. This bundle of software for writing, drawing and handling data is a far cry from Microsoft Office but contains similar high-quality tools that are custom-made for children. It has all the tools children that age need and, more importantly, will leave them well prepared to tackle more complex tools in the years ahead.

In Counter 2, one of the set, pupils plot picture graphs by counting and clicking. They can choose from topics such as pets or cars and then make count graphs or tally sheets. When you need to move the pupils up a stage, you can discuss the merits of different types of graph by switching between them. As a new version of a long-running title, this is an attractive and much improved program.

Another is Pick a Picture. This allows pupils to make a database about themselves, their homes or pets, but they choose pictures instead of words to record eye colour, hair colour, favourite pet etc. When they're finished they can see how the database can be shown as words and graphs.

Appropriately for this age group, here too is a beginner's LOGO program called Turtle. Great as a follow-up to work with a Roamer robot, this lets children move an arrow round the screen to draw squares, stars and rectangles. Hardly using words, pupils steer the arrow, get the machine to learn these different shapes and, with practice, can start to appreciate repeating patterns. The program has scope to set pupils challenging as well as easy shapes to draw and prepares them well for more heavy-going LOGO titles they'll use later in school.

These, a word processor and a painting package, are a doddle to use and sport a look that's very infant- and class-focused. The eight-page manuals take two minutes apiece to digest, leaving you with time to think about teaching rather than technology.

Moving up to the junior school, pupils will meet classification - a staple school topic where they categorise fruits, plants or animals. For years now there's been mention of software that helps do this. In the days of the BBC computer, the software was called Sorting Game, but in thee days of Windows, it has become as common as the dodo. You would take your animals, arrange them into sets and get the computer to identify them by asking it questions. For the animals it didn't know, the computer asked you to type in a question to tell between, say, a dog and a dinosaur. Having puzzled that out, you went on testing the machine with other animals.

Sometimes called a branching tree database, the software had no purpose other than to help juniors learn a bit of science well. Filling this gap comes Flexitree (age 7+), which is able to take advantage of a tiny market niche. The program also adds value to the original by letting you add pictures to a "tree", guiding you through an easy program, and offering a useful print-out when you're done.

Helping to make itself useful at all levels of school is the ability to change the screen font size - big for infants or small for the cooler older ones. Indeed, a bit of customising makes this look serious enough for secondary schools to classify anything from chemical elements to lugworms.

Flexitree deserves praise not just for bringing back one of those BBC classics, but for making a neat job of it.

And so to another software classic, Junior PinPoint, just released in a bundle as Data Workshop. Junior PinPoint (age 7+) has been widely adopted by schools; it set out the job of making a database in the way it should be done. You made a survey sheet when you wanted to do a survey and could make it look as friendly and colourful as you wanted, an approach that appealed to younger and older pupils alike.

If that was too long-winded, pupils could start with some ready-made datafiles, which is what this package sets out to do. Reducing the amount of preparation involved in data work, this has worksheet booklets and data files about plants, materials, natural forces and environment and its activities offer some science flavour to the job of teaching information technology. They practise the skills of searching, sorting and graphing and will probably trigger some good ideas for doing surveys of your own.

Numbers, Words and Pictures from BlackCat Educational Software. Price: pound;220 (5-user licence); pound;300 (10-user licence). Tel: 01874 622114

Flexitree from Flexible Software. Price: pound;28 (single-user); pound;84 (Primary school site licence). Tel: 01865 391148.

Junior PinPoint Data Workshop - Science from Logotron. Price: pound;44. Tel: 01223 425558

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