Space, planets and the Internet

Alan Walker
IT Curriculum Consultant for DESCIT, curriculum IT support service, Derbyshire County Council
Kate Lang
IT Co-ordinator at Whitwell Primary School, Derbyshire
This article first appeared in MAPE Focus on Science Autumn 2000

The current NGfL and NOF initiatives in ICT education are causing teachers to explore afresh how they might use the new technologies in their everyday teaching. For some the unstructured anarchy of the Internet provides a rich opportunity for exploration. For others, the inclusion of Internet based activities in their teaching can be a daunting experience. There may be many reasons for this but one of the most common is surely the overwhelming volume of the resources now available and the problem of how to access them.

Finding a starting point with the Internet is not always easy but there are opportunities and they are usually already there in the teacher's lesson planning.

Also, remember that not every pupil has to do the same ICT task at the same time, so what some do to enhance their Mathematics learning others might do at another time for Science and so on.

In any one topic or project the use of the Internet might be considered as part of the core project or as part of an extension activity that not all pupils would cover. The decision the teacher makes will depend upon a number of factors, not the least of which will be the time available and the access to ICT resources. Other factors might include the pupils' skills in using the Internet, the point they themselves are at in their own particular learning curve and ensuring that, over a period of time, all pupils have an equal opportunity to access the resource.

Surfing the net can be great fun! Using a 'search engine' to look for information can be enormously exciting when the very thing you are looking for appears in the resulting list. Just as easily, it can be incredibly frustrating and time-consuming with the possibility of little or no useful outcome. Classroom time is at a premium so should we be asking our pupils to search the Internet when we know the time they spend may not be fruitful or effective?

Of course both possible answers are correct and depend upon the context of the activity. It may be entirely right and proper to ask pupils to perform searches, if:

But there will be many times, perhaps a majority, when searching the Internet is not the appropriate way for pupils to access materials. It may be far better for pupils to be given specific tasks that are related to known materials on a few previously researched web sites. There are significant benefits of working in this way. The teacher can:

So, let's look at an Internet activity designed to complement and extend a 'Space and Planets' topic typical of the Key Stage 2 classroom. In this topic pupils learn about space, the solar system and the planets within it. They use a number of resources, including a CD-ROM but the teacher has decided to include some work on the Internet as an extension activity. We will suggest the skills needed by both the pupils and the teacher and look at organisation and possible outcomes.

Begin by exploring the curriculum context of your activity and decide what it is that you want your pupils to gain from it. You might, for example, want pupils to access photographs of the planets or Earth from space, or find which planets have moons, or the gravitational pull of each planet, or some specific information about the bodies in the asteroid belt.

Accessing the information on the Internet is of little value unless pupils work with it in some way.

The teacher, therefore, needs to consider what possible outcomes there will be. For example the pupils might:

Once the curriculum context and outcomes have been determined, the next task is to find appropriate web sites. This can be difficult but there are a number of strategies teachers can use to make life easier. Try:

Many LEAs, as well as other organisations, maintain these sorts of 'links';

A search engine is a computer program running on a computer somewhere on the Internet. When you use the search engine the information you type into a box on the screen is sent to the program. The program then hunts through its database of known web sites looking for matches. When matches have been found you are usually told how many there are and a list of the first so many is displayed.

Clicking on sites in the list is the usual way of accessing them. There are many, many search engines around the world, some of which concentrate on regions or subjects while others try to be international and all encompassing.

All search engines search a database but the way in which they do it varies from one search engine to another. Some use special 'symbols' or search terms whilst others use phrases like 'match all words' or 'match most words'.

Whichever search engine you use, learn to use it well, including the 'family friendly' feature if it has one. Most have a 'help' button that will give you information about how to make better searches.

Some include a tutorial on how to make the most effective use of the facility.

A 'family friendly' feature is one that reduces the risk of pupils finding unacceptable sites by automatically applying a filter.

The following information applies to the AltaVista search engine (which has a 'family friendly' feature). It isn't definitive but describes those functions the authors find most useful.

"" lets you search for proper names or phrases. For example, if you searched for John Flamsteed the list would contain sites with John or Flamsteed or both somewhere within the page, whereas a search for "John Flamsteed" would ensure the sites contain the phrase John Flamsteed.

+ makes sure the word will be in the sites returned.

For example the search for moon craters will result in a list of sites that contain moon or craters or both , whereas a search for +moon +craters will only list those sites containing both words.

The following figures may help to demonstrate this more clearly. The shaded areas indicate the results of the search using the different search terms:

Initially this search looks the same as searching for just moon by itself; but it isn't. When there are two or more search terms AltaVista displays the better matches first. So the resulting list starts with sites that definitely contain the word moon but may also contain the word crater . In effect this allows you to search for a number of words but to say that some of the words are more important than others.

- makes sure the word will not be in the sites returned.

For example the search for +moon +craters will result in a list of sites containing both those words. The search for +moon +craters - cheese will result in a list of sites that contain both those words but not the word cheese!

The following figure may help to demonstrate this more clearly. The shaded area indicates the result of the search using the given search terms:

* is a wildcard for finding words that all start with the same group of letters. For example use fat* , to find fat, fatter, fattest, and fatcat.

AltaVista also has a number of what they call 'fancy filters'. Here are two particularly useful ones:

Like: is a fancy search for finding sites that similar content to the given URL. For example, search for Like: finds sites that AltaVista thinks are similar to, or related to, the Nasa site.

Link: is a fancy search for finding other sites that link to the given URL. For example search for Link: finds sites that have linked to the Nasa site. This is useful because authors of similar sites often link their site to those of a similar type.

These two fancy searches are very similar. The significant difference is that Like: gives sites that AltaVista thinks are similar or related, whereas Link: is more likely to give you sites that the authors think are similar or related.

When you have found a useful site it is very convenient for the web browser to 'remember' that site in a way that makes it is easy to get back to at some later date. This is what 'favourites' (sometimes called bookmarks or hot lists) are for.

Teachers can set up their own collection of favourites and organise them according to their own criteria, say subject or facilities offered.

Different web browsers use slightly different ways to record and organise favourite websites.

However, the method employed will usually be something similar to the process described here:

This will open a window on the screen. Click on 'Add to Favourites' to open another new window.

Once the chosen site has been added to the 'Space' folder it will remain there for pupils to use until the teacher decides to delete it. To access the site pupils click on the 'Favourites' button and then the 'Space' folder. The sites that have been added to this folder will appear in a list. They then 'click' on the one they want to select it.

Pupils can now access a specific site, chosen by the teacher, with a defined curriculum context and with known content. The teacher can set exact tasks and define desired outcomes.

Whatever the outcome pupils will, in some way want to capture images, text or numbers so that they can subsequently work with them. The simplest way, and for some tasks and pupils the best way, is to use pen and paper to write down the information they need. But, for many, working with the actual information will be the most common activity.

There are two approaches pupils might take. The first is to save the data to the hard disc or the school network. This has the advantage that the data will be available, in its original form, for later use. The second approach is to have the web browser and word processor loaded at the same time and use 'copy and paste' functions. In modern web browsers it is a simple task to mark a block of text or an image, 'copy' it and then switch to your word processor page and 'paste' the copied object.

Pupils will be able to switch between the two programs copying from one and pasting to the other. With a little practice this second approach is very simple and very effective. (A note of caution. Although the owners of most web sites will be happy for their material to be used in this way there are copyright issues. Make sure you understand these issues and obey any copyright message that may appear in the site.)

Here are some 'Space and Planets' URLs for you to try. They were correct at the time of writing but do remember that the Internet is constantly changing: what you find one day may not be available the next!

(The authors of the article, Kate and Alan are Capita (NOF training provider) mentors and this article is drawn from their work for Derbyshire County Council and a training event run by Capita.

A version of this article previously appeared in 'IT Curriculum News' which is an 'in house' publication for DESCIT subscribers.)

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