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On their metal

Steven Chapman recommends secondary science reference books

Reference books can provide background material for pupils' research with anecdotes, historical examples and unusual contexts to flesh out the dry curriculum material. It is often these colourful vignettes that help children engage with the science and remember something after the exam.

Students often use such books for making display materials, such as posters, or for holiday projects where something beyond the curriculum is needed. Despite the increasing dominance of the internet for research, there is still a need for books covering specific topics with a guarantee about the reliability of the text.

By looking historically or thematically at a subject, books in the school library can provide alternative perspectives for students. With the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the structure of DNA earlier this year, Understanding DNA: a breakthrough in medicine ("Turning Points in History" series, Tony Allen, Heinemann, pound;10.99), is an excellent primer on the story for pupils of 14 and above. It outlines all of the milestones on the way to the structure of the double helix, revealed in February 1953. The book mentions Rosalind Franklin's involvement and subsequent sidelining following her early death. It then looks at the impact the discovery has had on science and is an excellent introduction to the historical background of genetics. This would complement any work done in school on genetics or inheritance.

Similarly World Health: the Impact on our Lives (21st Century Debates series, Ronan Foley, Wayland Hodder, pound;12.99), is an excellent book, suitable for key stages 3 or 4, on health in the world today. It covers such topics as disease, Aids, inequality in resources and poverty.

It would be valuable not only for teaching about infectious diseases, but also for providing science contexts in citizenship education or PSHE.

At KS3 teachers are often teaching outside their specialism and reference books can provide the background to the attainment targets. This is particularly so in chemistry and physics where the shortage of specialists is most acute.

The Chemicals in Action series is a good example as it provides core material for KS3-4 chemistry as well as background material and contexts (Chris Oxlade, Heinemann, pound;11.50 each; individual titles are: Atoms, Metals, Elements and Compounds, Acids and Bases, Solids, Liquids and Gases and Material Changes and Reaction).

The metals book for example gives historical information about different metals, their basic chemistry and the people who discovered them.

The atoms title covers everything from atomic structure, electrons and bonding and includes stories about Democritus and Niels Bohr. One particularly useful feature is the highlighting of key words in bold.

The text is clear, but may not be suitable for younger students at KS3, or those whose reading ability is limited.From the same family, the Cells and Life series (Robert Sneddon, Heinemann, pound;11.50 each, topics include animals, multicelled life, plants, and funghi) is lavishly illustrated and provides information about the biology of plants and animals. Essential biological processes are explained clearly with helpful and colourful diagrams and photographs.

The examples from the animal kingdom are extremely useful in engaging students and are backed by up-to-date images. In particular the baby kangaroo photographed in its mother's pouch was vivid enough to gain the attention of even the most disengaged student. However, be careful, as the dense text may deter the youngest readers, so guidance would be necessary when directing students to use them.

Some of the concepts in physics are very challenging for both students and teachers, so any help with them is always welcome.

The Young Oxford Library of Science series offers a series of colourful paperbacks covering these tricky topics clearly, with lucid diagrams and illustrations augmenting solid explanations (various authors, OUP pound;7.99 each; individual titles include Science in Action, Energy and Forces, Atoms and Elements, Light and Sound and Stars and Planets).

This series would be suitable for pupils aged 10 to 14, including those in Year 6. The book on energy and forces for example looks at what energy is, how it is used in our homes and what impact on the environment of all this activity has had.

Dr Steven Chapman is head of physics at Oxted school, Surrey and deputy editor of Physics Education

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