Science teaching has been placed under the microscope after criticism from Ofsted school inspectors that practical experiments are in decline and the demand by the exams regulator, Ofqual, that immediate action be taken over GCSE exams. Teachers are turning to ICT to make science more practical and exciting, with tools such as data-logging, blogs and wikis, podcasting, simulation software, YouTube video clips and digital microscopes. The Association for Science Education's (ASE's) schools website includes e-Source Xpress portal, which brings together a wealth of resources produced by commercial organisations, education bodies and charities. It offers everything from a tour of Fawley oil refinery to the story of Viagra. 'ICT can create memorable experiences in science,' says Malcolm Oakes of the ASE, 'but only a handful of teachers use it.' The main barrier is a lack of understanding of how to use ICT tools, says Oakes. Once this is overcome, 'teachers become very enthusiastic about the difference ICT can make to science lessons.'
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The decline in practical work, which enables students to see scientific principles in action and not just theory, is one of the major concerns of science educators. Research funded by the charity Gatsby Foundation with the Centre for Science Education at Sheffield Hallam University, due to be published later this year, shows how ICT can help bring high-quality practical work back to the classroom, particularly for key stage 4 students. Some of these suggestions require the bare minimum of technology and are aimed at helping novices do practical work. Using a laptop webcam, for example, students can record someone running across first in bare feet, then socks, and then trainers. With free software such as Physics Tracker, students can track the motion and work out the acceleration and velocity. Tracker can also be used to study slower motion, such as germinating seeds. 'It helps children to understand about trajectories and concepts such as the principles of gravity,' says Richard Needham, one of the research authors and chair-elect of the Association for Science Education.ICT helps students to visualise alien concepts and to interpret data rather than purely measuring it, he points out.