science software for the home and school (1995)

What’s the good software for learning and why it’s worth having – by Roger Frost, TES 1995.

There was a time when the best thing to do with software catalogues was to file them. Only the dullest meetings could persuade me that they might be worth reading. But take a look today. This year will see in 3000 new CD-Rom titles and the added value from CD-Rom starts to improve on the promises of past titles.

Right now you could pop out and buy over 80 CD titles on science alone. Apparently us and the kids at home are driving this, though looking at some titles, there are some obsessives driving it too. So Fitness Partner takes you through a fitness programme with on-screen aerobics. And `Subliminal Persuasion for Windows’ flashes up subliminal messages as you work at the computer screen. Maybe you use it to fine tune your head, eat less, get children to work hard or just be quiet.

The marketing does play on parent’s fears about their kids’ education. But amongst the guilt-ware you will find colourful reference works and encyclopaedias which can nurture budding interests or sustain the insatiable hobbyists. And, with more time than school can ever offer, your child can use software where they sit on a favourite planet, wander in the country or zoom around the body.

For a harmless taster of what is going on, see `BodyWorks’ and explore, look at, read about and label just about every bone, muscle or body system. While in `3D Body Adventure’ they can watch animation and rotate bits of the body. It’s pretty incredible wearing 3D specs so I fantasised about getting the entire class watching with specs together. At shop-around prices as low as £35 these are fair starters for home or school.

You can look out for the will-be-good, `Most Amazing Human Body‘. Ready now and been here a while, is BodyMapper – which while just plain pedestrian software, is perfectly aimed at the 10-12 year olds. More usefully, you can enter, compare and analyse measurements from the class which is also spot on for the curriculum.

Animals feature in more than half of the CD-Rom titles. Many are a match for the coffee table book, but here children will find not just words and pictures, but sounds and video too. Endangered Species, and Dangerous Creatures are pretty competent. Creepy Crawlies and Bug Adventure are plentiful in wincy-stuff. British Birds is more of a reference work and for serious twitchers. Dictionary of the Living World is deadly serious, and despite the quirky way of looking things up, a handy, quick reference tool.

At home children can use these just as they might browse an encyclopaedia. At school they can do the same but as a kick-start to a topic or project. Don’t expect them to stay glued for hours, soaking up the information. After they have found the main thrills it gets harder to keep the software off the coffee table. A purpose is needed – or even a teacherly input.

Anything to help experimenting with plants needs a welcome. Botanic Garden is an easy-peasy look at factors that affect plant growth. Children can give their plants more or less light or water or warmth and they see them grow. It’s simply a quick introduction to controlling variables and well suited to early secondary work. Coming soon is Angela McFarlane’s Plant Science CD-Rom. Again the approach is investigative but this one is in another league having far more depth. It has pedigree and schools should see it.

Astronomy fans will find a legion of software. Previously an enthusiastic Patrick Moore book was enough to thrill. Today we demand something more graphic, and top marks go to Redshift for a really graphic model of the solar system. They can choose where they want to sit as they watch the planets go by. They could say, watch the moon and use controls to advance time day by day. Likewise they can click as the planets move round their orbits, and then work out each planet’s year length. Redshift is a reference work for home or school – but the fact that it’s this useful throws up the need for some teaching materials. It’s quite hard too – the controls are as complicated as a spaceship’s but it runs at nothing like the speed of one.

It’s good to see that some authors are getting to grips with software. Supplying quality information at the right level is one thing. Finding a way to weave it all together, like Redshift, is another. This is perhaps one pointer to a good title. So in Planetary Taxi, a home-school title, they learn about the solar system as they play a travel game. And in Exploring Nature they learn about wildlife as they go exploring with map, camera and notebook and more. These key stage 2 titles are noticeably special, but Exploring Nature at over £100, is really a bit pricey.

Chemistry titles are just like buses so four have appeared over the year, each weaving its chemistry around the periodic table. `The Chemistry Set’ does well in offering what the curriculum requires. For example, there is a feature where they can increase the temperature, click by click and they watch the periodic table boxes light up one by one. This trick alone simply and deftly illustrates what we know about the gases but could never show that well.

Control technology is an oddity but totally enthralling. While it’s on the edge of the science curriculum the idea of making Lego Technic models and getting the computer to control them is enough to keep children working creatively for ages. Shame that the few commercial kits that appeared never really hit the right price points.

If you are not sure where to focus, try an encyclopaedia. Encarta has a nice interface and despite being about everything, still comes up with surprising chunks of science. Science Adventure II is more garish, but clearly a bit more to the point. Both are American but that’s less of an issue in science. One other final item is the SSERC Graphics Collection. This much asked for teacher’s tool has lots of that ready-drawn equipment needed for worksheets and it’s at last on the Arc, PC and Mac too.

Choosing the right software is about looking for that added-value that’s hard to find elsewhere. Software for the home is more demanding still. It needs to cover interests that children have and help encourage new ones. It needs to sustain interest for longer and it needs to cost less.

Any notion of plugging children into computer programs has got to go, they aren’t like telly programmes. The idea of a learning partnership between child, parent and teacher is more apt. Add a computer, which only occasionally misbehaves, and sample some fun learning.

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