Making multimedia in the primary science classroom

Vivi Lachs
Creative Director: Hackney City Learning Centre
This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on Science Autumn 2000

Let me introduce you to Hackney multimedia created by primary school students for primary school students.

On the screen (Fig. 1) is a rather colourful character holding two objects, in the left hand, a feather and in the right a hammer. 'Which one do you think will land first on the moon?' the text challenges. There are two buttons below to discover the answer which produce animations of the falling objects on Earth and on the moon. This astronaut is not in full gear (indeed he rather looks like a Hackney schoolchild!), so on another screen there is an interactive puzzle to put the correct equipment on an astronaut.

Another project (Fig. 2) has a screen showing a rather chubby penguin and asks the user to consider how it is adapted to life in the arctic. By clicking on different parts of the body information boxes pop up to give details, which enrich the image. It is also possible to see what will happen if this penguin is taken out of its natural environment and put somewhere else. In a desert we watch our poor penguin burning while a voice-over gives us the penguin's thoughts . . . 'this sun is so hot . . .' and a pop-up text box offers us an explanation for a sun tan.

A third project (Fig. 3) shows a variety of different objects, and is set up like a quiz to find out what these objects are made out of.

One screen showing a nail, a scarf, a cupboard and a wrapped up present asks the user which one is made of wood. If you click on the right object, a 7-year-old voice haltingly tells you, 'A wardrobe is um wood because um if it was stone, you wouldn't be able to carve a anything um to hang your coat hangers on it'.

Using computers creatively in science can be a big motivator for primary aged students, and multimedia and web authoring can provide the framework for this.

Students always present their work in some way, usually on paper. Giving them the opportunity to present it in an interactive form that includes images, text, sound and animation allows them greater scope.

Students working in this way can become engaged with the science they are learning from the perspective of telling someone else about it, and making a computer game as a way of telling them, testing them and amusing them.

Multimedia science projects become cross-curricular as there are many new skills to be learned. Some of these are about using particular software and computer skills, but more importantly most of these new skills are about learning.

In order to create multimedia projects students will have to have something they want to communicate, decide who their audience is and then consider the most appropriate way of making the material suit the audience. They will need to plan out this non-linear project, deciding the overall content of each screen, where each screen will lead to, and what interactive elements will be on each screen (e.g. putting the life cycle of an insect in order by dragging the images to the right place, making choices about which planet to land on, making animals move by choosing to watch an animation). Students will work in groups, in pairs and independently in creating artwork, writing and rewriting text, taking photographs, sequencing animations, scanning onto the computer, linking pages together. Basically there will be a classroom of multiple activity with a joint (hopefully collaborative) focus.

And the outcome? Concentrated learning on a particular aspect of science, engaged discussion around what they want to communicate, and a snazzy little game that they can put on a website or CD-ROM and watch with satisfaction as students from another class in the school play it.

Of course, it's not quite that easy, and teachers worry that making multimedia in the classroom is time consuming. The answer is that it does take more time than teaching the subject in a traditional way, and it does take a fair amount of planning and forethought; however, the outcomes in Hackney have proved well worth putting in the time. One primary school doing a multimedia piece on the Greeks followed it up later in the year with a Geography project on climate. The class teacher explained that the planning stage for the second project had been both quicker and produced more complex ideas than the first time round. The students had already understood the process, knew what the software could do, and hence produced a more interesting piece.

The real danger for teachers is that making multimedia is a bug, and do you want your students to be bitten by it? Indeed, do you?

Vivi Lachs is the author of Making Multimedia in the Classroom. This is a guide for teachers that comes with a CD ROM and goes through the whole process of planning, designing, making and evaluating student authored multimedia projects. It gives theoretical background, numerous detailed examples, and practical step by step ideas for the process.

Making Multimedia in the Classroom (19.99) is published by Routledge/Falmer and can be ordered by ringing 08700 768853.

Hackney have produced seven CD-ROMs. The Moving Picture Science Show, The Electricity Line, Expedition Space and The Genetics Fair have a science focus and can be bought for 5 each. Ring 020 8356 7431 or visit the website at

Editor's note: We gave the science CDs to Year 6 children at Courtwood Primary School in Croydon who looked at them and wrote their own reviews. Here are two typical offerings.

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