Survival course

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Heat sensors and other technology can inject a vital touch of reality into science, simulating the search for earthquake victims, as reports Dorothy Walker

Nigel Bispham's students are facing a race against time. "There has been an earthquake, and you have three minutes in which to find survivors," says Nigel. The young scientists surge forward to gather their equipment, rising to the latest challenge set by their award-winning teacher. They may be acting out this drama in the classroom, but thanks to ICT the students can explore and apply their subject just as scientists do in real life. Nigel says: "Without its applications, science is boring - and all real applications use technology."

Nigel is director of science at Camborne School and Community College, Cornwall, where the earthquake exercise is the starter for an hour-long physics lesson on infrared radiation. It comes at the beginning of Year 10, as part of the energy module. "Everyone can get something out of this," says Nigel.

He begins by showing the class two video clips taken in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated a school in the Italian town of San Giuliano di Puglia in 2002. The footage from the BBC news website shows the desperate search for survivors and explains the detection techniques used in the rescue.

Students are then presented with their own challenge: to find vials of warm water Nigel has hidden in mounds of polystyrene "rubble" on the tables in the laboratory. Pupils work in pairs, equipped with a Pocket PC - a handheld computer which they transform into a mobile detection package by slotting in a data-logger with a sensor to measure infrared radiation.

Data-logging software will relay the readings to the computer screen, and students first have to decide whether they want to see the readings displayed on a meter dial or tracked as a graph. The pupils then scan the rubble with the sensor, watching for a sudden peak in their graph or a dramatic rise in the meter reading - the signal that they have achieved their part in the mission. Miniature United Nations flags are used to mark the spot where the rescue team -in this case their teacher - must concentrate the search. Nigel makes a tour of the laboratory successfully retrieving the vials, and encourages students to give themselves a round of applause.

Nigel says: "Without the data-logging package it would take a whole lesson to do the scanning and produce a graph, and some of my lower ability groups wouldn't manage it. Thanks to the technology, the exercise becomes a snappy starter that launches the students into the lesson. It prompts questions and gets across the message that science saves lives."

The next activity is designed to help pupils deduce that infrared radiation is a wave. Nigel has set up a radiant heater in the middle of the room, and with the help of their data-logging equipment students have to investigate how the intensity of the radiation decreases as they move away from the heater and produce a graph of the results.

Nigel says: "It should take only 30 seconds to take readings as they walk away, so if they do something wrong - if they don't keep pointing the sensor at the heater, for example - they have time to do it again. If we weren't using data-logging we would have no time for mistakes. Students would end up following a recipe for an experiment, or I would be sitting at the front saying: 'Make sure you do it this way.' The real learning starts when they are able to ask themselves: what went wrong? They get the idea that scientists don't lead a charmed existence where everything falls perfectly into place."

The pupils have been on the move for most of the lesson and Nigel says working with handheld equipment is a major advantage. "People think better on their feet. If we were doing this on laptop machines, we would need 15 heaters - one per table - and the room would be like the Sahara.

Data-logging technology is much more portable than it used to be."

He asks students to print their graphs, appropriately via an infrared link to a printer, and tours the room discussing the results. He says: "Students tend to be good at planning and doing experiments, but less good at analysis and even worse at evaluation. If they produce graphs during the lesson, they can do the evaluation and draw conclusions there and then, while the whole thing is fresh in their minds, rather than having to wait until the next lesson when the ideas will have died. We have a discussion - we might talk about waves, and how ripples get smaller as they move across the surface of a pond, and then students spend five to seven minutes writing conclusions."

As the final activity, pupils make thermal images of their own faces. First they run the sensors over their faces, taking a series of readings which they note in a table. "It takes only a couple of minutes, and prompts fascinating questions," says Nigel. "Why are the eye sockets so hot and the nose so cold? The students are getting into blood flow and biology, making links like real scientists rather than thinking: 'We do physics in one compartment and biology in another.' " The pupils discuss thermal images Nigel has found on the web. As homework, he asks them to employ Paint software to draw their own example, inventing their own colour-coding scheme to help transform the infrared readings into a thermal map of the face.

The lesson ends with a plenary session in which the students summarise what they have learned. Nigel says: "I might ask one of them to take the hotseat and answer one question from every table. That always yields good results."

Nigel was winner of the Secondary Teaching category in this year's Becta ICT in Practice Awards. "Technology has always been the light of scientific discovery," he says. "If we do classroom science without technology, students know it is not real science."

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