For a few hundred pounds, the school computer can now take your pupils to Mars. Roger Frost introduces the Internet. There is a rumour that the information superhighway will be the greatest new technology; that it will change lives and education; that it could even be the best thing since the 100ml beaker. As far as rumours go there is a good chance this might be true: the idea that you could get piece of information to the classroom at the click of a button, even pictures and television programmes beats the best beaker ever seen. But that is yet to come - the real information superhighway isn't here yet.
What we have now is an information highway called the Internet. For a few hundred pounds, or less, you can connect a school computer to it using an ordinary phone line. You need a modem, a box about the size of an A5 book, that turns computer signals into noises that travel along phone lines in the same way that voices do. You also need an "information provider", a firm which provides you with software and a number for your computer to call and "connect" to. This is all easy, the hardest part might be getting a phone line to your room.
But within a minute of dialling the phone number, you could be "surfing" for science resources - finding out about the world use of energy, the secret life of polar bears or all there is to know about planet Mars. You will see and can turn pages of words and pictures, as you might in a book or encyclopedia. And there are "forms" you can fill in to search for things, but you will not just be searching the books in the school library, but every book, every encyclopedia, stored in computers all over the world.
Bristol Cathedral school seems to be a pioneering school on the "net". Science teacher Bryan Murphy has clocked up more surfing hours than most and says he is finding things all the time. "One pupil was investigating craters and crater sizes. He was dropping ball bearings into sand and hit a snag. So I helped him post a message to a physics 'news group' (a discussion forum) and a day later heard back from a top NASA scientist, who sent in ideas and pages from a book he'd written.
"That alone seemed to justify the cost," he adds, "but we also got the Kobe seismograph soon after the earthquake, as well as a peep at what the Hubbell telescope was looking at right now. We got lots of pictures from space, found out about quarks from Fermilab in Chicago, and picked up an infra-red satellite-picture of Europe, just minutes after it was taken."
The school, and around a few hundred others who are connected in the UK, will have yet more to find when the Science Museum adds its own pages shortly.
The museum is promising a "home" or menu page that will provide "interactive exhibits" as well as connections to other museums such as the Natural History Museum.
But you don't have to be parochial: once you are on the Internet, Pennsylvania's Franklin Institute Science Museum is but a minute away from South Kensington.
There are frequent reminders on how useful the Internet can be: you can exchange ideas with other science teachers, pick up the Department for Education's Superhighways for Education consultation document, pick up a whole book Highways for Learning, or how about a set of worksheets for using computers in science, both from the National Council for Educational Technology.
So should you dive in, dip a toe in or wait? Boring good sense seems to say wait, you don't have to have it. Stay out and you'll not drown, well not in a 100ml beaker anyway.
Bryan Murphy would disagree, judging by his pupils' reactions: "Every time I show it to pupils, their jaws drop and they're astounded by what they can find."
Resources o A Science Box Information Superhighway exhibition, at which you can go and play in "Surf City" is at the Science Museum, London until September 3. Tel: 0171 938 8080 o Highways for Learning, a book to introduce the technology is available from NCET, Pounds 7.50. Tel: 01203 416994. More ideas for science on the Internet will be in The TES Computers Update on June 23.
Colleagues using the Internet can contribute to the science teachers' forum run by science teacher Stephen M Baines. He asks you to subscribe simply by sending a mail message to: firstname.lastname@example.org in which you write, "subscribe schoolscience -name
Use a Web explorer program, such as Netscape to see these Internet menu pages: * NCET on http:ncet.csv.warwick.ac.uk index.html; * Research Machines on http:www.rmplc.co.uk * Science Museum on http:www.nmsi.ac.uk * The Franklin Institute on http:sln.fi.edu * Department for Education on http:www.open.gov.uk dfedfehome.htm Contacts
To get connected, contact an Internet service provider such as the BBC, BT, Research Machines, and the many others you can find in computer magazines. BBC, 0181 576 7799; Research Machines, 01235 826868, BT (fax preferred, 01442 237811) tel: 01442 237812.
You need a modern computer, a modem and a subscription to a "service provider". In money, Pounds 200 buys the modem and Pounds 120 buys a year's subscription. You ought to budget for, and tell the head (while seated or better, over a drink) about the likely effect on the phone bill. Just an hour's connection a day will add around Pounds 500 a year but if your Internet service provider is more than a local call away, you need to double that. At around Pounds 200, the 24K modems are worth considering: they are faster than the half-the-price 14K modems. In theory they should save your phone bill, in practice they make browsing the Internet easier, so you will probably use the system and the phone more.