Sites for Keen Eyes

Cyberschools Column

First Published in The Herald, October 1998

In some schools the computer available for use with a chemistry class - often it is a single computer - is still a BBC. It might sound like a trusty brand, a household favourite, like Marks & Spencer or Hoover but to teenage would-be scientists BBC computers belong to a previous generation, a pre-Internet generation. Many science departments aren't equipped to demonstrate the white heat of technology.

Streetwise students, on the other hand, know that studying chemistry could mean finding out about the chemical industry - a significant employer - by visiting the Web sites of key companies; actually questioning the professionals involved in the latest discoveries or investigating scientific theories by researching in publications from around the world. For many students the Internet could help to take the mystery out of chemistry.

Chem 4 Kids is one site which tries to ensure that lack of up-to-date technology doesn't get in the way. It's divided into important topics such as atoms, matter and reactions. The materials would be appropriate for Standard Grade. The site owners - unlike some - are aware that not everyone has a super fast processor or modem.

"We get a lot of users from schools and homes with older machines. All of our sites are designed and programmed with the most basic user in mind. We don't want anyone to be held back. If they're here to learn, nothing should be allowed to stop them," the project states.

In the Matters area students are confronted with a map of the USA which identifies various "States of Matter" - a nice pun. With a choice of solids, liquids, gases, plasmas and a page explaining the idea of mixtures, there is a lot of information on the site. The advantage for students in using the Web site is that the pages are short, well-designed and linked in a way which encourages working through what in printed format would be an overwhelming amount of detail.

With approximately 4,000 visitors each day, Chem4Kids is a popular site, best used in Scottish schools in the morning, when America sleeps.

Cool Science is part of a larger site operated by Videodiscovery, an educational publisher. This particular page is an online factsheet with information about topical issues in language appropriate for secondary students. Ironically one of the main problems in using the Web in schools is that, far from having "dumbed-down" content, many sites are too advanced and the language too difficult.

Cool Science gives a readily understood description of fullerenes and fullerenes, as anyone who has recently spent any length of time with a chemistry teacher knows, are a recent discovery of some importance evidenced not least by their inclusion as an area of study in the Higher Still arrangements.

New content, in this instance, is certainly best supported by new technology. Search for details about fullerenes on the Web and you get thousands of references, each considering the molecules from a different angle. Actually fullerenes are made of carbon atoms, and were discovered in 1985 by three chemists, Robert F. Curl, Harold W. Kroto, and Richard E. Smalley, awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their efforts. Details about their work can be found at the Nobel Web site.

Why such molecules - at their most basic made up of 60 carbon atoms arranged like a 32-sided football - should be considered quite so interesting has been a matter of some discussion in the House of Lords. A transcript of the discussion has been put online by a German university.

Apparently Lord Erroll of Hale asked Her Majesty's Government what steps they were taking to encourage the use of Buckminsterfullerene in science and industry; fullerenes are named after American architect , R. Buckminster Fuller, who designed buildings with similarly shaped domes. Lord Campbell of Alloway wanted to know what they actually do. Although there are several possible uses: for batteries, as a lubricant or as a semi-conductor, it is speculation. Using the Internet to find out about current research allows students to track developments as they're happening and encourages them to consider the questions which are being raised.

Lord Russell: My Lords, can one say that it (the fullerene) does nothing in particular and does it very well?

Lord Reay: That may well be the case.

Polymers are also creating a stir in the chemistry departments of secondary schools and the Web provides an ideal resource in the form of the Macrogalleria. The site uses the visual metaphor of a shopping centre to make it easy to navigate around the enormous amount of information which the writers have supplied. The different floors in the "shopping centre" allow information to be presented in an ascending order of sophistication.

On the "first floor" students find out that Polymers are Everywhere . The different shops on this level illustrate the everyday occurrences of polymers. In the fast food outlet starch is evident in the potatoes; proteins in the pizza; cellulose in the paper cups; polystyrene in their lids and polyethylene in the straws. A wide range of "shops" have been included and there are details in each one.

The "second floor", Polymers Up Close and Personal, allows students to investigate particular polymers. They can also jump to this level from the first floor because polymers identified in the shops are cross-referenced to details on the "second floor". It operates like the "book shop" of the "shopping centre", with sections on each example. It's the ideal place to browse if you have to demonstrate knowledge and understanding.

Alighting at the "third floor" involves thinking about how polymers work. There are three main reasons why they're different from other molecules but I'll let you find out for yourself.

By level four, students can find out how specific polymers are made. They could, for example, select polyester and read through materials about the process involved. For them it won't ignite memories of the 70s but if you've ever wondered how those clothes were made, visit level four.

On the top "floor" students can begin to look at research methods and begin to understand the scientists they may have encountered on other sites.

One of the great strengths of the Macrogalleria is that it is interesting. Even if it were the only Web site which a chemistry department used it would be worth going online to get it.

Teenage would-be scientists are right about the equipment. They could gain a lot from the Internet.