Straight to the core

22nd November 1996 at 00:00
SHORT CIRCUIT BBC2 Fridays, 11.20-11.40am Age range: 14-16.

Many of the key ideas in science are abstract - this is what makes it as a subject both powerful and yet so difficult and daunting. To study science without getting to grips with these abstract ideas is like visiting Spain and spending a week on the same beach. But a little effort and ingenuity from the explainer (and equal effort from the learner) will get the ideas across.

This is precisely what Short Circuit achieves. The programmes do not fight shy of difficult concepts or the terminology that goes with them. Each programme uses three strategies: first, grab the learner's attention, second, make them see the need for understanding a difficult idea; then third, explain it as clearly as possible, using different people, visual aids and a range of teaching tactics. Add to this a story line about actual people (teenagers) and the recipe for learning is complete.

Thus "Radioactivity" tells the story of Gavin Hales, whose rugby accident at 17 left him with back pain. Gavin is given a back scan, using a radioactive injection to build up an improved picture of his back. To understand this fully we need the ideas of half-life, radioactive decay, and the nature of radiation.

These are explained using real medics, laboratory demonstrations, and a few cartoons. Viewers are left understanding exactly what has happened to Gavin and why he has to spend 45 minutes lying on his back, in a cylindrical container.

The programme on homoestasis follows a similar tactic but with a tragic ending. It tells the story of Leah Betts for whom an Ecstasy tablet taken on her birthday proved fatal. The story is told by her parents and a close friend: "She blew out her candles, and an hour later she was dead." Exactly how and why it occurred is explained, again using a range of people (biochemist, pathologist), some excellent visual aids and cartoons to explain cooling by evaporation.

The way the kidneys and the brain work, the way the body is controlled by hormones and the way a drug can upset the delicate balance are all explained clearly. The sting comes when we realise Leah did not die from lack of water - she had drunk too much and her brain had swelled while her kidneys had failed to receive a signal to pass water.

The most memorable figure in this striking episode is the low key pathologist who quietly offers advice to would-be Ecstasy takers, having just handled and explained the kidney and the brain of a dead person. These images will remain with the youngsters I showed this video to for a long time.

In short, this series looks like being an excellent teaching resource for Years 10 and 11. It tackles the science head on and will be invaluable for covering many of the content areas of the national curriculum. But it also shows the nature, relevance, application and importance of scientific ideas throughout our daily lives.

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