World in their hands

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Physics teacher Nigel Bispham is using technology to make his subject more interactive, relevant and enjoyable, George Cole reports

Nigel Bispham had never planned to go into teaching. It was only during a chance interview with a careers adviser at Oxford University (where Nigel studied physics) that he realised that he had no interest in becoming a merchant banker or working in an office full of yuppies. Banking's loss was teaching's gain. "I said I wanted to work with people and, from there, teaching became a possibility," recalls Nigel, "so my careers adviser suggested I do some youth work. I did and I liked it - I had found my vocation."

When Nigel joined Camborne school and community college in Cornwall as a physics teacher, he found that his new school had some data-logging equipment purchased under the old Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative scheme of the early 1980s. "Back then, we had an ICT suite with a few low-end PCs, which were not enough for whole-class work," Nigel recalls. "Added to this, coming out of a science lab to an IT lab didn't seem right and nor did it seem right for the children to sit in front of a desktop machine. There had to be better solutions.

There were, and one of them was to use Pocket PCsJ-compact, hand-held computers that were relatively cheap and highly portable. "As soon as people can hold IT in their hand, they no longer think of it as being a computer, it becomes almost an extension of themselves," says Nigel. "And another great thing about the Pocket PC is that there's no waiting for it to boot-up - you just switch on and go." He also believes that portable computers can make ICT more comfortable for teachers. "A lot of teachers fear ICT, but if you can pick it up, it removes a lot of the dread." Nigel is also a big fan of Data Harvest's data-loggers, which can be plugged into a Pocket PC. The combination has transformed Nigel's teaching in the classroom - and beyond.

Nigel is a firm believer in learning by doing whenever possible. "If you take the typical classroom, at least 30 per cent of kids will be kinaesthetic - they will learn better by being actively involved," he explains. "Teachers are great listeners and pretty good on the visual stuff, for example, using an interactive whiteboard. But there's no substitute for doing something, especially in science." Whether Nigel is teaching children in one of Camborne's feeder primaries or taking an adult learners' evening session, the chances are that they will be on their feet and working around the science lab.

A session on light with primary pupils, for example, will involve them using a Pocket PC and a light sensor to plot differing light levels for one minute. Once the graphing module has been activated, the pupils scamper round the classroom, looking inside cupboards, under tables and behind doors. When the 60 seconds are up, the children look at the graphs to determine the brightest and darkest areas in the room. "A lot of science is about graphs and ICT helps to demystify them, because it makes it so much easier to see the relationship between the cause and effect," says Nigel.

"The reason I like using ICT is that it frees up kids to think and it removes the arduous parts, like creating a graph on paper. It's like using a calculator in maths. It removes the need to do a long division and lets you focus on the concept."

Nigel also believes in putting learning into context. In another session which examines the infra-red (heat) levels in the classroom, Nigel begins the lesson by showing the class a short video about an earthquake. "If you just sat them in front of a video and told them about it, what would be the point?" he asks. Instead, the pupils become UN rescue workers and are armed with a Pocket PC and infra-red sensor. Their task is to hunt for "bodies" (in reality, warm objects), which Nigel has buried around the room, and they search for them with great enthusiasm.

Nigel is also a big fan of using ICT to communicate with others and he and his students use email and video conferencing to link up with schools in Japan, India and Australia. "It's all about making the world a smaller place for everyone," he says. But despite his widespread use of ICT, Nigel insists: "I'm not an ICT wizard - it's all about how you use it. The creative skills we have as teachers can take pupils on a journey using their imagination. I am a teacher, plain and simple, with the desire to provide for my pupils not only what helps them learn best, but also what they enjoy, links them to the real world and enables them to be creative."

TEACHING TIPS

* Use ICT to enhance creativity in the classroom.

* Use ICT to cut out repetitive learning to give pupils more chance to think.

* Use ICT for a number of discrete activities that fit in to a lesson rather than one long, drawn-out activity.

* Use ICT in the classroom where you can so it is very much part of the lesson.

* Where you can, use ICT kinaesthetically to allow pupils to think on their feet.

WEBSITES

* www.spaceweather.com

Everything from solar wind speeds to astrological birthdays of note.

* www.wotw.org.uk

Windows on the world.

* www.bbso.njit.edu The Big Bear solar observatory.

* www.bbc.co.uk radio4science Excellent source of scientific thought both ancient and modern.

* www.darvill. clara.net Andy Darvill's science site.

KEY TECHNOLOGIES

* Data-logging - especially with pocket PCs - and modelling packages from New Media

* Digital video

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