Software for science – 2000

Last year was a bumper harvest for science software, almost worth a celebration. Good timing really - the curriculum now advises teachers to use models for difficult, dangerous or impossible situations. If to date there’s been a famine, it ended as the year began with the arrival, from Australia, of a catalogue of experiment simulations. With titles such as ‘acid-base titration’, radioactivity, and ‘natural selection’ here were good measure of those difficult things to do. In ‘Frogs’ (Newbyte) your mouse feeds on such green things camouflaged in the greenery. Look carefully and click skilfully and you’ve found your food. If some frogs seem to be foolishly red and an easy meal, click on these and you find they’re poisonous. Do this and your mouse pointer freezes briefly to slow your progress! What’s more, over generations of frogs, non-poisonous frogs mutate to gain red skins too, with the luck that you’d never try to eat them. You see their progress on a graph, illustrating this elegant case of natural selection.

Biology teachers will easily relate to Pea Plant Genetics (Newbyte) where you repeat Mendel’s experiments in lessons instead of months. Students can breed parent plants with different pods, fruit and flowers, and then count their proportions in the next generation. key ideas such as genotypes and recessive characteristics are shown in numerous investigations. Intricacies such as codominance and incomplete dominance are shown too – worksheets and a site licence complete a package that’s ripe for school. And if breeding fruit flies is more your fancy, Drosophila Genetics is an alternative.

A UK produced range of software focuses on tricky ideas such as kinetic theory and catalysis. For example, The Haber Process (New Media) shows the mixing of nitrogen and hydrogen gases in a reactor chamber. You can change the temperature and the pressure and there’s animation of a catalyst joining them to form ammonia. Mixing Colours (New Media) has three light projectors, coloured filters and lets you mix coloured light and reflect it off coloured objects. The software uses photographs to show the actual results of an experiment. Similarly, in Ripple Tank real film is used to show the tank working as its inventor originally intended. In Meiosis and Mitosis, fuzzily understood cell division is shown using crystal clear animation. With these and some more, this set of ‘teaching tools’ are the sharpest tools ever seen: you can demonstrate them, use them with a class and obtain them as ‘Multimedia Chemistry School’ - a package with access to advice, worksheets and teaching notes on a Web site. Packages for physics and biology are to be launched at the Leeds ASE meeting. Developed with funding from the Nuffield Foundation, the ‘software with support’ idea was later adopted by the ASE run ‘Science Consortium’ for teacher training in ICT.

Showing there’s no monopoly on ideas, last years honourable gems also included Oscillations & Waves (Fable) for advanced physics. This animates the Doppler effect, resonance and interference more effectively that real life ever will and in a package which is blindingly easy to navigate. Another is Multimedia Motion (CSM) where you analyse filmed objects in motion and measure their acceleration. Just out is a new version where the film clips fills the screen instead of playing postage stamp size. Final mentions goes to the re-discovery of Interactive Physics (Argenta), a software classic where you might draw a ball, bounce it around the screen, change gravity to your heart’s content. New this year is more of the ‘virtual laboratory’ genre with Crocodile Clips Chemistry – a chemistry kit with Bunsens, beakers, and acids - all ready for a visit from a virtual safety inspector. See the demo copy on the Internet - amusing it certainly is. 

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