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Us and STEM

As one of the judges of the Students and Teachers Educational Materials awards, George Cole knows what it takes for a website to be a winner It never fails to me amaze me how imaginative and creative people can be when you give them a good idea and a set of creative tools to use. This strikes me whenever I help to judge the annual Students and Teachers Educational Materials (STEM) awards, sponsored by Toshiba and The TES.

The concept behind the awards is simple: to encourage pupils and adults to design and develop web-based educational materials for others to use. The materials must be linked to one of the three museums that are part of the UK National Museum of Science and Industry (NMSI): the Science Museum in London, the National Museum for Film, Photography and Television in Bradford and the National Railway Museum in York.

Pupils or adults (such as student teachers) are encouraged to develop a website which helps students or teachers get the most out of a visit to one of the museums. This might include ideas for activities (either during a visit or on the return to school) or materials that build upon the content in one of the museum galleries. Many STEM entrants develop ideas after visiting the museums, but others find inspiration at a museum's website.

Entries fall into three age categories, under 11, 11-18 and adult, and last year's prizes included Toshiba Pocket PCs, notebook computers and digital cameras.

In 2002, STEM attracted 209 entries from 53 schools, which gave the judges plenty to think about. Entries were judged on criteria such as museum relevance, educational effectiveness and design as well as originality and effective use of the web, with each site assessed by category.

Judging falls into three stages. First, entrants are whittled down to a shortlist and, once this is finalised, the judges meet at the Science Museum to discuss and rank the finalists. About half a dozen judges from a variety of backgrounds and experiences are involved in the final selection. Last year's panel included members from the educational press, Toshiba, the Science Museum and Becta. Also on the panel was Steve Pankhurst, founder of the Friends Reunited website.

Then comes the second stage of judging, with all the judges having their say about what they liked and disliked about each finalist. These discussions often bring out new and interesting perspectives on the websites. Finally, the entrants are ranked and the winners selected.

So what makes a winning website? We liked sites that had a good design, easy-to-use navigation systems and inspiring visuals - we loved sites that looked so interesting you simply had to explore what was on offer. We also admired good use of multimedia, although some of the best sites kept things simple, just using still images and text.

We also looked for sites that made good use of the internet as a medium; for example, by providing useful links or interactive activities. Some of the best sites also provided downloadable materials such as worksheets, games and lesson plans.

And what didn't we like? Some sites lacked original content and had just cut-and-pasted content from other sites or pages. Others were let down by their lack of relevance to the NMSI museums and it was hard to know how students or teachers would gain much from visiting the site. Others went overboard with the multimedia, adding music and Flash animations for effect rather than relevance or clarity. Poor navigation let down some sites, with poor links, confusing page design or lots of page hopping. Others left you wondering where you were and gave little or no help on how to get back to a previous page or the home page.

But we were impressed with the effort that had gone into creating websites and the quality of the entrants, especially the youngest. STEM not only gives schools a chance to win some IT kit, it gives entrants a chance to let their creative juices flow, to collaborate, to consider their audience when developing materials and to help other schools prosper from their experiences and creativity. Any one of these is reason enough for all schools to consider entering this year.

STEM. BETT stand L10.

Toshiba. stand V40.

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