A clearer meaning of life

Technology is bringing students closer to science than ever - firing their interest and understanding, says Janet Murray

If Bunsen burners or the odd desk fire caused by a cocktail of combustible chemicals bring to mind your science lessons at school, then you may not appreciate the influence of ICT in the modern school laboratory. A successful fusion of science and multimedia means that science is no longer the preserve of harassed looking teachers in white coats and pyromaniac pupils.

A laptop, data projector and a screen or whiteboard is all that is necessary to make the most of some of the excellent software available. While the majority of science teachers specialise in just one of the sciences, the structure of the curriculum at Key Stages 3 and 4 means most have to teach all three. Some even find themselves grappling with the AS or A2 curriculum in a science outside their specialism and are keen to find resources to support their teaching.

Multimedia Science School 11-16 is a popular choice. This CD-Rom, developed in collaboration with science teachers, contains curriculum-focused interactive teaching tools that cover topics in biology, chemistry and physics with accompanying worksheets, teachers' notes, slide shows, video clips, models in addition to databases.

Nick Dixon, who teaches science at Magdalen College School, Northamptonshire describes the resource as "the best of the commercial programmes available. By its nature, science is very conceptual and one of the difficulties of science teaching is that students often don't see the significance of why they're learning something. Take the topic of digestion; students can appreciate the human biology part, but when they get to enzymes, the interest can wane. Being able to illustrate difficult concepts, like starch breaking down into glucose, with animation and video clips really helps. The editable work sheets are another great resource for follow up work." A new 16-18 version of the software offers support to teachers of advanced sciences under the traditional headings of biology, chemistry and physics.

As with the pre-16 GCSE resource, the aim is to explain difficult concepts in a highly visual and interactive way. Teaching tools can be selected for each topic which can be displayed on an interactive whiteboard or projector/laptop in the whole class situation or used individually or in small groups by students for learning or revision purposes.

The Multimedia Science School Web Site provides the teachers' notes, worksheets and guidance to help teachers get the most out of the CD-Rom and there is also the opportunity to share ideas with other teachers.

Another all-round favourite for science teachers is Sunflower Multimedia for Science by Sunflower Learning. This is a suite of curriculum-focused programmes designed to help teachers tackle tricky topics in secondary biology, chemistry and physics. There is a try-before-you-buy option and teachers can purchase as many programmes as they wish to suit their teaching needs and budget.

Nigel Bispham, assistant head teacher and director of science at Camborne school and Community College in Cornwall, recommends Boardworks. Created in PowerPoint, with the aim of being flexible and editable, this interactive resource contains hundreds of images, diagrams, animations and activities as well as text-based resources across all three sciences at Key Stage 3 and 4. "I have to admit I'm not the greatest fan of powerpoint," says Bispham. "But this works well because it's editable and you can tailor the resource to suit your needs."

Ken Brechin, head of science at Cramlington Community High School in Northumberland, rates Odyssey from Fable Multimedia, a brand new software teaching tool which features 3D molecular models in stunning realistic motion. In 80 topics, there are 3D molecules colliding and vibrating to explain difficult concepts, such as lone pairs, Boyle's Law, ion salvation and hydrogen bonds.

Brechin says: "The quality is almost cinematic. You can rotate and flip molecules, make them vibrate, break up and interact with other molecules. It's really exciting stuff." He is also keen on www.physics-online.com, an online environment which provides access to interactive content together with a careful selection of physics applets and video lectures. Teachers with a school account can create their own interactive courses and learning activities, allowing students to learn anytime and anywhere.

Crocodile Physics (from pounds 110 per subject) is a simulator which lets teachers and students model physics experiments on screen on a range of topics, including electricity, force and motion, oscillations and waves.

There is also a version for Chemistry. Crocodile Chemistry is a simulator for secondary school chemistry teaching. It is a virtual laboratory with more than 100 chemicals where students can simulate reactions safely and easily. Parameters from the experiment can also be measured and put into a graph.

According to Nick Dixon, the range of software available for biology is still lagging behind the other sciences. One resource he has found useful is the American site www.brainpop.com. For a subscription of around pounds 20 a year, teachers can download two- to four-minute cartoon clips, interactive quizzes, experiments, timelines, how-to segments, comic strips and printable activity pages on more than 80 science topics. "Right from Year 7 up to sixth form, you can get some value from the cartoons," he says. "At two to four minutes, they're short, sharp and students love them. I've invested in a wireless mouse and keyboard, which you can pass around the class, making the quizzes really interactive."

Brechin adds: "One of the great things about brainpop is that it's really up to date. After the recent tsunami, I could use one of the clips to illustrate how it was caused."

Despite their enthusiasm for the software available for science, teachers are keen to point out that "considered use" is crucial. Neil Dixon says: "It has to support your teaching and learning objectives. There's little point in using ICT for ICT's sake." He believes it isn't always necessary to spend hundreds of pounds on software to make effective use of ICT. In fact, many teachers regularly create their own multimedia resources by sourcing and downloading visual resources from the internet or even making their own short video clips.

Ultimately, says Dixon, what teachers should be aiming for isn't too many steps away from the PlayStation. "Increasingly, we're living in a bite-size culture. Teaching needs to reflect that change."

Science on the Web

Multimedia science school

http://asp.platolearning.co.uk/ scienceschool/index.html

Fable Media

www.fable.co.uk/

Crocodile Physics

www.crocodile-clips.com/ crocodile/physics/index.htm

Boardworks

www.theboardworks.co.uk

Sunflower learning

www.sunflowerlearning.com

Brainpop

www.brainpop.com

ChemIT.co.uk

www.chemit.co.uk/portal.aspx - ICT resources to support chemistry teaching for the 11-19 age range provided by the Royal Society of Chemistry

Chem-Pics

www.chem-pics.co.uk - Chem-Pics provides teachers and lecturers in schools and sixth-form colleges with a huge quality resource

S-cool

www.s-cool.co.uk - revision site

Skoool

www.skoool.co.uk -

An interactive website that can be used for revision. Students work through virtual lessons at their own pace

Digital Brain

www.digitalbrain.com - Students can log on and leave work for the teacher to pick up and mark. Includes animations and games for students

Curriculum Online

www.curriculumonline.gov.uk

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