All those involved in education
agree – children have a natural appetite for knowledge and
this desire to find out more should be stimulated from the very
earliest days at school. So what does the web offer science teaching?
Apart from an unrivalled document base for those who know how to
use it, the Internet offers various tools which can generally be
considered to fall into two categories: those which teachers consult
outside the classroom to prepare their courses or improve their
teaching practices, and those which pupils use during lessons.
As pupils are apparently losing interest in science,
teachers are turning to the Internet in the hope of bringing a new
dynamism to their teaching. But where can they find the programme
for a course on atoms and elementary particles for secondary school
students, examples of practical activities to enable a class of
ten-year-olds to understand how plants breathe, a site presenting
the history of mathematics, or simply reference documents and illustrations?
Cyberspace is packed with all this and more.
Separating the wheat from the chaff
It was partly to carry out such a selection that the European Schoolnet
was launched in 1996 by about 20 European education ministries.
This metasite gives the addresses of educational servers –
in particular those selected by the main educational resource centres
in the countries in question, generally run by the ministries –
as well as examples of educational methods, news, and opportunities
for teacher exchanges, etc. 'More than 120 000 educational sites
are listed,' Thomas Maier, European Schoolnet's technical adviser,
announces proudly. The general objective is to provide teachers
with 'an overview of the educational use of the Information and
Communication Technologies for Teaching (ICTE) in Europe'.
Many countries are also trying to set up resources
adapted to their own educational system. 'In Norway, the government
is planning to compile a national knowledge base for schools,'
explains Jon Bing, of the Research Centre for Computing and Law
in Oslo, and there are probably similar initiatives elsewhere. Nevertheless,
he stresses that 'there remains a great deal to be done' when you
compare what Europe has achieved with the scientific metasites of
certain major US universities.
Classroom practices and limitations
With on-line exercises or experiments, educational games, and questionnaires,
there is a growing trend for websites to offer tools which pupils
can use directly. 'We have one or two computers connected to the
Internet per class and we use them every day,' explains Jaana Minkkinen,
head of the Risti primary school in a small village in eastern Finland.
Classroom Internet sessions can nevertheless quickly reach
the limit of their usefulness, especially with older pupils. Alain
Ritman, who teaches maths at a French lycée, believes
that 'it is mainly the best students who benefit most from this.
The others amuse themselves but do not get much from it.' More ambitiously,
teachers can use the web's interactivity and electronic mail to
allow classes located in different countries to work together on
a common scientific project, or even have pupils develop their own
educational sites. The Americans are very partial to these science
fairs and other competitions. The Europeans are beginning to follow
suit, but more in the spirit of co-operation than competition.
Boston (Massachusetts), October 1998.
During a meeting of the Association des centres scientifiques
et techniques, Joël de Rosnay, director of the
Cité des Sciences (Paris), launched the idea
of setting up a European network which would link up
science museums and the new concept science centres
of which there are still relatively few in Europe. Ecsite
(European Collaborative for Science, Industry and Technology
Exhibitions) was born. Making intense use of the Internet,
the network has expanded worldwide and now includes
240 science museums in over 35 countries. It provides
a forum for the exchange of information and experiences
as well as for co-operation between specific projects.
Ecsite's Internet portal includes a directory of the
websites of all the member institutions and, as such,
is a valuable point of entry for a curious public.
Visitors can also see Bionet, Ecsite's first
on-line exhibition. The idea of using the web to create
'virtual museums' rather than simply museum sites is
not new. The National Museum of Science and Industry
in London has made it a speciality – its site
now offers around 20 permanent 'events'. In the United
States, the Smithsonian Institution, a grouping of Washington's
science museums founded a century and a half ago at
the initiative of the British scientists James Smithson,
also proposes many virtual visits which often follow
on from 'real' exhibitions (such as Ocean Planet,
an exceptionally comprehensive exhibition on the sea,
presented a few years ago).
The National Museum of Science and Industry
NMSI on-line science museums
Ocean Planet Exhibition