Starting with science and IT

For Education Guardian, 1998

However it came to be, today's science teaching has more in common with science in the last century than anything in this. Strong words and all the stronger for coming from one of Her Majesty's Inspectors, but teaching can get stuck in time. That we're rolling inside our Banda machine, instead of looking outside our Tardis is a clue to the issue.

But if what we teach is one thing, another is the apparatus we use to teach. Just as scientists choose the tools for their job, so teachers are choosing theirs. For example, they use data loggers to help in experiments about heating things and cooling things. Their sensors take temperature readings, the software plots graphs and the screen shows changes as they happen. They use them to check body temperatures during exercise or see how well perspiration cools us down. Other sensors like a sound sensor, double as a way to monitor your heart sounds or even to check the noise level of the class. You've got to admire the teacher who would pop out of the room and come back to see if they really had been quiet. If there were any peaks on the graph he'd yell "Who did that?".

It's wise to start with the things that are simple and effective, so starting off by mixing computers with Bunsen burners, bubbling water and no extra support is one way of drowning. And being effective means extending the science you normally do. For example, spending an hour just to find out if a woolly jumper keeps you warmer has to be a folly of science teaching. There's no wonder why kids aren't turned on by the great discovery, but add a computer and all sorts of ways of analysing graphs and you can then see how much difference a jumper makes or how well it works when wet.

But many will find easier ways to get up speed. There are lots of titles that help with revision for tests - for example, DK's Acacia range now covers tests at age 14 as well as GCSE, while Granada Learning's title practices science tests at age 11. Most are very plug and playable, as well as aiding bright students to dig out what's in their heads, while giving weak students a style of working they find more credible.

The teachers to envy are those coming fresh to all this technology. They've never wrestled with a Nimbus computer, never lost work on a tape cassette and never despaired over the broken promises of technology. A dozen years back software was home-made and sensors were a mess of wires and solder. It depended on experts, so when it failed students would look to you, and you had to find the man with the anorak and goatee beard who set you up. Had the curriculum said ‘children should use IT’ it wouldn't have made any difference.

Happily, time has worn away the pains of the pioneers - it might not have healed those solder burns, but today IT is easier and teachers approach it in numerous ways. Some brave the computer room, some prefer portables and some do demonstrations. They see how the speed of sound changes with temperature or share results on the Internet. Some do things that you never dreamed of or even things you never wanted to. Words like creative, experimental, realistic, critical and sceptical come to mind. Great words, the stuff of great science and what you need to make the effort worthwhile.


Could IT be used for science investigations?

Investigations and projects may be a best way of using IT. The technology lets you explore more variables, analyse more graphs as well as present the work. Primary schools and A level groups tend to manage better - possibly because there are already lesson time slots for this kind of work.

What sort of computers should we get to do data logging?

Sensors work with any computer but for reasons of space and convenience, you would be best to go for portables. For starters, look at palmtops, discounted laptops and the Texas Instruments calculator systems. Avoid carpeted network suites, even though they impress parents.

I have only one machine in my class, how do I work with it?

Very recent computers and laptops offer an outlet for a large screen TV that will allow you to discuss graphs, demonstrate experiments and show snippets of software. For under a £100, you can add a new 'video card' to offer the same, extremely useful feature on an older desktop machine.

Don't pupils need to draw graphs and read thermometers? Yes, these are relics of the test system where we often teach what can be assessed. However, there's evidence to show that children better learn these skills when they understand how useful graphs and thermometers are. Also, children do not need to hand-draw every graph they do or use thermometers all the time.

What will the children do now that the computer takes readings or draws their graph? At first, there's a risk they will mess about unless you get pupils to say, discuss and write up the experiment. Over time children will learn to use the time they save to explore science in more depth.

Case study - primary school

Stuart Ball, Science co-coordinator at Llantilio Pertholey Primary School in Abergavenny:

Years ago I thought the only things worth doing on a computer were word processing and handling data. These at least seemed to offer more than pen and paper. Today, the power of software has opened all sorts of avenues for interactive work.

I'm working with a CD-Rom on Insects (Ransom Publishing) where the pupils use a key to identify and learn all about them. They hear the sounds insects make, see these on an oscilloscope and can slow down the sound to see how the trace changes with pitch. Later, they use its 'beetle maker' to not only design their own beetle, but to write a key to identify it.

Unlike software where they can find a picture, print it off and say 'there, I've found it', this nourishes thinking. It promotes interaction between the pupils and me. They experience situations they wouldn't normally be able to do. It's also providing an inroad to discussing about why insects make sounds, how they make them and they can see a tie-in with other areas of science.

I also like Claris Works for the way it integrates a word processor, spreadsheet and graphics all on one page. Here children can make a table, a chart, draw text boxes, add clip-art, without jumping backwards and forwards between different packages. They use it a lot for writing up investigations, and very successfully too.

I use it to set up a page with a spreadsheet to calculate what their weight would be on the moon and the other planets. The pupils take turns to add a formula, type in their weight and see the results on a graph. The computer helps by taking away hurdles - normally, if they cant draw the graph they can't go on to higher skills like analysing it. For example, one boy asked why they weighed differently on other planets and we set about finding out. They started looking at planet diameters and so on. But, had they not got through from the first step as quickly, they'd never have the time to take things further.

Kids are fed up with typing in the poem they've already written in their best handwriting - and just to put on the wall. What turns the kids on is a teacher that can use the computer and enable them to use it well. Many are coming to school with IT skills they're learning at home. Someone who can focus this - to use IT more constructively or purposefully is going to be more useful to them.

Case study - secondary school 

Mark Hitch, De Lisle RC School, Loughborough:

"I started using IT in school because I just had to. I'd become the head of physics and there were no teaching notes, practical notes or schemes of work. The previous person had everything in his head and there was nothing to help another new teacher in the department. Using a word processor I made a file for each lesson, adding teaching notes, diagrams, activities and book references. It took a while, but for every year before I'd reinvent the wheel with handouts and Banda sheets. That way, you never seem to progress whereas with IT you can.

The thing with IT is knowing the difference between time wasted and time invested. When the school moved from a 40 to a 25 period week I could re-order three whole year courses in a couple of weeks opposed to starting again.

It's a rolling program of development. I'm currently building in animations or diagrams that I find on CD-Rom or the Internet. These I show on a large TV display I set up in the lab. I found very useful bits in Bodyworks (Learning Company), The Way things Work (DK) and The Chemistry Set (New Media) and without the course plans it would be much harder integrating IT into the work.

Before each topic I get the pupils to do some research. They use the library - and I guide them to books, the Internet, DK Encyclopaedia of Science and Microsoft Encarta, though we are short on resources.

We go to the computer room often. I've made exercises with Microsoft Office where the pupils add missing words, sequence sentences or label say, a diagram of a leaf. They might add 'how long it took to run a length' to create distance-time graphs in a ready-made spreadsheet, or they make PowerPoint slide shows to explain about photosynthesis for example.

I teach a bottom year 11 set and IT especially helps to get them motivated. One boy - you know the type - scruffy writing, appalling book, and if he uses a ruler it’s a miracle but the line will be at the wrong angle, and smudged too. With the computer he can prepare work that is as well presented as the top set kid. He now has work that he enjoys showing. IT gives him the chance to succeed, a sense of achievement and an opportunity to build upon the success. I think IT can halt the downward spiral, where they say "I don't like this, its not good for me, so stay motivated.


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