Education Home Help 4. Science: Celebrate learning about science the easy way

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The Independent Online
IF YOU thought science was just a load of old ticker tape and test tubes, you'll be just as fascinated by today's range of scientific software as your kids.

Whether it's Big Bangs or biology, newts or Newton, multimedia packages offer a level of animation and explanation that can make even the most complex concepts intelligible to even young children.

Some titles take a broad sweep. Mad about Science (Dorling Kindersley, ages 7-11, pounds 19.99 each) is particularly comprehensive. The three discs - "Energy & Forces", "Life and Matter" - let children test out their theories in on-screen experiments without blowing up the kitchen. Each topic has a test section and clear, concise explanations, with printable experiment sheets as final rewards.

However, there were mixed feelings about The Magic School Bus titles (Microsoft, 6-10, pounds 24.99 each). Using a bus to explore the inside of the earth, our bodies, or the solar system seems like a good idea, but I found the information on offer either too complex or too scant. Eight-year-old Joshua, on the other hand, pronounced it "very funny, with very good games too." Perhaps more for its levity than its learning.

Physics need no longer be a bore with Science (Europress, 9-11, pounds 9.99). Its realistic and satisfying experiments, exploring the basic concepts behind forces, magnetism and electricity, give a hands-on feel and a rare chance to absorb the principles intuitively. Despite being well below the recommended age range, Flan, aged six, loved it: "I really like trying to guess what it's going to do and then seeing what it does."

Another economical title that exceeds expectations is Jump Ahead Discovery Tree (Knowledge Adventure Value, 4-8, pounds 9.99), which lets kids do just what it says - discover the world around them by exploring this tree of knowledge. Lots of animations and explanations by real children - although the lip-syncing was a bit dodgy. Covers much primary science, including animals, our bodies, geology, astronomy, and food and nutrition.

Machines are a popular area for multimedia titles. Know Your Stuff: Inventors (Ten Out of Ten, all ages, pounds 4.99) is an economical way of utterly humiliating yourself in front of your children. After my initial test, the software announced solemnly: "Your status is mediocre." I was crushed: I thought I'd done rather well. Still, you can redeem yourself by taking a tutorial to iron out your mistakes, or read up more information on inventors and inventions in the library.

But it's Dorling Kindersley who must make other publishers sit down and weep. David Macaulay's The New Way Things Work (7+, pounds 29.99) should be mandatory in schools. Packed with information on scientific principles, history, inventions and inventors, it's hugely entertaining with witty illustrations and the wonderfully ironic "Mammoth Movies". Good on the nuts and bolts, but never loses track of the more humorous, human side of it all.

And for afters, there's Pinball Science (9-14, pounds 24.99) - the same whacky Macaulay mammoth format, but giving correct answers on the science questions lets you build and play some of the quirkiest pinball machines since The Who's Tommy.

Human biology can be a bore - ask any medical student - but My Amazing Human Body (Dorling Kindersley, 6-10, pounds 28) is amusing and informative. Reassemble a disjointed skeleton or scrutinise body parts by measuring, turning, prodding, even X-raying them. There are wonderful animations of a skeleton bathing or dancing, as you try and get him through the day without starving, dehydrating or exhausting himself. Older children can graduate on to The Ultimate 3D Skeleton (Dorling Kindersley, 11-16, pounds 29.99), for a more detailed tour around all "dem bones".

However, in the delightful 3-D Body Adventure (Knowledge Adventure Value, 7-16, pounds 9.99) you can go one further; actually viewing the body through 3-D glasses, making it look eerily substantial, or doing your own CAT scan and examining yourself in cross-section. Best of all, however, is a shift in the disc's "ER", where you can theoretically heal the sick and injured. I was every patient's worst nightmare, a lunatic let loose in casualty to attend to their needs: everyone died on me. Joshua, however, was a natural. "I loved finding people's tumours and zapping them," he said proudly.

Astronomy is also something of a lode-star for software publishers. Red Shift (Dorling Kindersley,12+, pounds 29.99) is the most awe-inspiring. Crammed with statistics, films, photographs, and illustrations, this state-of- the-art title brings you updates from the Big Bang to the end of time. Budding Patrick Moores can establish the position of over one million stars, planets and other celestial objects from 4,700BC to 8,000 years into the future, or use the sky diary to find out exactly what to point their telescope at in the sky tonight.

But for physics and astronomy buffs everywhere, Essential Knowledge 1 (Marshall Media, 14+, pounds 29.99) offers the ultimate package of four sophisticated discs that take you from the infinitely large to the immensely small: "The Universe", everything from quarks to the farther reaches of the cosmos; "The Planets", who's who in the solar system; Einstein, everyone's favourite grey-haired boffin; and A Brief History of Time, a multimedia romp round Stephen Hawking's best seller. Fascinating stuff, but definitely not for the woolly-minded.