Almost all the science software that comes out these days comes on shiny CD-Rom discs.
What's good about this is that today's software, with its photographic images and read-aloud text, is starting to feel as though it's really useful. At last, young and struggling readers can now get a piece of the science action.
When you're looking for software it's useful, almost crucial, to sort out where you will use it. There's the stuff you can teach with in the classroom or use for reference. And there's the stuff you'd use for reference or as 'stimulus material' which feels more at home in the library.
For example 'The Chemistry Set' is a CD-Rom that works in the classroom. It's a huge bank of information about the elements - with facts and pictures about how they react, where they occur and who discovered them. There are handy snippets of film where fluorine reacts with neon and Caesium with water - things you'd not do for real, but are worth showing.
You can analyse the data here too. You can plot a graph of atomic number against melting point, to spot a useful pattern in seconds. Or you can plot atomic number against ionic radius - any pair of features in fact - and you could explore a whole range of patterns. It's such a challenge to explain these patterns, this is something I'd want to guide pupils through in class.
Homerton College's Investigating Plant Science also has a classroom feel about it. It collects together scarce information about UK plant life - abstracts from New Scientist, and interesting stories about using orange peel as a fly killer or how Dodo's helped to conserve trees. There's detail on thirty useful plants - telling how they flower, how to germinate them and where to get them. And, as this is on computer, you can search the text to find which plants best lend themselves to investigating geotropism or transpiration.
What also unique is a key that helps you to identify common weed species. Many keys insist on you having a flowering plant to identify it but here you can just answer questions about the stem, leaves, fruits if that's all you have to go on. Unlike many CD-Roms, there are no whistles and Bluebells on this one - instead there's precious data that serious biologists will value.
Another title, Multimedia Motion is unparalleled. It's a collection of video clips showing cars crashing and balls bouncing which you can analyse frame by frame. So you click on a ball in one frame, then the next and build up a series of graph points. One more click and you'll see your points on a graph of distance, velocity or acceleration against time - it's the sort of analysis that we've needed to do but never easily could. Other sequences, and there are fifty in all, show a jogger, a rocket and let you compare a feather and a hammer falling on the moon. Physicists will be able to run with this. They can also stop to see 'Multimedia Sound' which uses the same idea, but with a different tune.
I'd look at these titles as teaching tools rather than the stimulus or reading material you'd have in the library. It's here that a couple of the now classic Dorling Kindersley titles distinguish themselves: "The Ultimate Human Body" is a graphical look inside the body where pupils click on a body to find out about what's inside. They'll see animated hearts and joints and they'll find magazine-style answers to questions such as 'why do you blink' or 'why do we sleep'. Perhaps its special value is that children who don't like to be seen reading a book feel quite 'cool' with it.
Another DK title, "The Way Things Work" looks at the workings of every appliance, from the television to the aqualung. It's funny, interesting and wraps up a lot of knowledge in cartoonery. It's just the thing I'd have wanted as an inquisitive youth, when funnily enough, tellies didn't work.
Primary schools might go for Anglia Multimedia's 'Seashore Life' and 'Garden Wildlife'. Between them they let children explore habitats such as the estuary, garden pond and lawn. They're very graphic so they'll find them easy to use too. Seashore Life is the better offering as there's spoken commentary in nice, small doses. They'll hear about plover or sea aspen and, even if this isn't your speciality, you'll not find it at all intimidating.
Microsoft's 'Explorapedia' is a child's encyclopaedia of plant and animal life. Children can visit habitats such as rainforests and wetlands, or look up facts about gorillas and snakes. As they browse there's plenty of hand holding with a spoken commentary in real English, but to find specific things they'll need to read a little. Set beside the unreadable Encarta the difference is dramatic.
It's strange that life topics are well covered but one home grown title 'Exploring Nature' is too clever to miss. With this you can go exploring with thermometer, light meter, camera and nature book. So you might go the pasture, make observations and compare these with the forest. As preparation for a school field trip, this has much to help pupils start looking at nature with their 'scientist spectacles' on.
And finally, if you roll your own teaching materials you'll certainly have want of computer diagrams of Bunsens, tripods or obscure glass widgets. Well the timeless 'SSERC Graphics Library' with all of that for grabs, is at last available for the Apple. Oddly, there's only a floppy disc version for the PC but considering the scarcity of CD-Rom machines that might even be a blessing.
Facts and contacts
Exploring Nature (for Windows and Acorn) from Hampshire Microtechnology Centre
The Chemistry Set (for Windows and Acorn), The Way Things Work (for Windows or Apple) , The Ultimate Human Body (for Windows or Apple), Explorapedia (Windows), Garden Wildlife, Seashore Life (Windows, Apple, Acorn) from AVP
Multimedia Motion, Multimedia Sound (Windows) from Cambridge Science Media
Investigating Plant Science (Windows) from Attica
SSERC Graphics discs (Windows, Apple, Acorn) from SSERC