Imagine this classroom scenario
Students gather around the lab table helping one of the group members focus in on a specimen on a flat panel screen from a USB camera connected to the microscope. Once focused, the students capture the image and insert it into Google Slides and label the image on the slide. Another group of students is using a remote sensor that is strapped to a matchbox car traveling through banked turns and loops. The sensor remotely sends data, such as acceleration, angular velocity, and altitude to a spreadsheet on the student Chromebook in real time. The students then work as a group to analyze the data and format it into visual graphs.
This is just a snapshot of what today’s science classroom can look like with thoughtful integration of digital tools. Many classrooms have access to devices that would allow students to collect data just like a scientist would in a modern-day laboratory setting. If the tools are available and affordable, why do we still have students collect data manually with old-school analog and often inaccurate equipment?
That’s a controversial question.
Whether you are just starting out in the classroom or have been teaching for decades, the question of when to use technology in the lab is often a debate. The purists feel that students are too deeply rooted in technology and do not know how to use or read results on a basic tool, such as a thermometer or pH paper. The belief is that students must learn how to master the basic tools before they can move on to the digital tools, which theoretically do most of the work for the user. The technology advocates argue that if we only teach the old school analog tools, then we are not preparing our students for science careers which use digital tools daily.
So who wins the argument?
We would like to offer a middle of the road perspective. Both arguments are valid. That’s not fair you might say. However, we need to equip our students with basic skills for data acquisition, but also teach them how to apply those skills to current technology to see the real power of science in the lab. So, why can’t we do both?
Why is this important educationally?
The most recent standards for science education in the United States have shifted towards inquiry-based learning and a deeper understanding of the content and student experimentation. The Next Generation Science Standards focus on 3-dimensional learning, which includes crosscutting concepts, science and engineering practices and disciplinary core ideas. As described in NGSS, “students engage in practices to build, deepen, and apply their knowledge of core ideas and crosscutting concepts.” The heart of the standards are based on student design and experience actually “doing” science instead of just “learning” about science. There is less of a focus on students just learning concepts for rote memorization, but instead applying the concepts to real-world situations in a lab type setting. Students are engaged in designing the experience and analyzing the concepts involved in the experiments.
How do we accomplish this in our classrooms?
It is not as difficult as you would imagine. Many science classrooms are set up for students to work through lab activities in a group setting. So, it is easy enough to have students working as a group to collect both forms of data for an experiment. Part of the group works with the analog tools, while other group members collect data with the digital tools. At the end of the experiment, they share and compare their data. The most difficult part about incorporating both forms of data collection is to ensure that all students have the ability to experience gathering said data in both formats. In this scenario, the students learn to question and evaluate their data at a higher level than with only one collection method. If the analog group has results that are drastically different from the high tech group, then maybe they need to go back and reevaluate why it happened and what might have gone wrong. In a normal setting, the students would just take the results at face value and potentially lose out on a learning experience. The other beauty of using digital tools in a science classroom is that it is easier to share data as an entire class in order to gather a larger sample size for the experiment. This allows the students an even greater chance to identify trends, errors, and anomalous data.
What are some tools and examples I can use in my classroom?
There are a variety of tools that educators can easily integrate into their science classrooms. In our classes, we have instituted tools that we believe provide the greatest impact, while still maintaining an affordable solution for our schools.
USB Microscopes and Microscope Cameras
The simplest and easiest tool to incorporate into any science classroom, including the elementary level, is a USB microscope with an integrated camera. Many of the USB microscopes available now are “plug and play,” which means that they do not require any software to be installed on your device in order to use the camera. This also means that many of them are compatible with Chromebooks that do not have the ability to install PC based software. Since many schools have implemented Chromebooks for students, this feature is a game changer for classroom teachers. It enables the students to collect data right to their own device for review and analysis later on! Students can hook up the USB microscope camera directly to their Chromebook and use the native camera app to view specimens and also capture the images digitally. Students can also install one of many chrome apps that can record video from the microscope camera, which can then be inserted into a google slide for sharing and viewing later on. Imagine the possibilities! The next best benefit that we have learned is that students no longer have to look through the microscope eyepiece, but can use the Chromebook screen (or a TV display) to focus in on a specimen. This enables the process to become a group effort or can allow a teacher to easily coach a student through the process without having to move the student off of the microscope to find the object. What a game changer!
USB and Wireless Digital Probes for Data Acquisition
Several companies, including Vernier and Pasco to name just a couple, have modified their probes to be compatible with Chromebooks as well. We currently use various Vernier probes that can either plug directly into the Chromebook or an interface that can enable multiple probes to connect to the Chromebook at once. The probes send the data to the app for the acquisition of the data, which can be exported easily to a spreadsheet for final analysis. It makes it so easy for an entire class to collect their data and share it in a Google Sheet which allows for a larger data set to analyze. Some of the probes we have used measure temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen levels, angular momentum, and more. What we like the most is that we can still have students measuring data in a traditional format while others record with the probes. It also teaches the students to critically analyze the data. If their probes are reading consistently different values than the traditional method, they might consider asking another group about their data, recalibrating the probes, or talk about human error with the traditional methods. In the end, the students can quickly and easily see trends with their digital tools that they often overlook when recording data by hand.
Remote Multi-Sensor Interfaces – PocketLab
Our newest favorite tool is called the Pocket Lab. There are several versions, including the original PocketLab One, Voyager, and Weather. The interface connects to a computer, Chromebook, iPad/iPhone and Android devices. If you use the Voyager, it also has an onboard memory that can record data when it is not connected to a device. The devices are small enough to attach them to moving objects such as physic crash cars, bicycle wheels, sailboats, and much more. The app also offers a unique feature if you have an integrated camera. You can record video of the experiment with an overlay of the data in real time. Possibly the best feature of the device is the community of teachers that share their lesson ideas and experiences so that you do not have to reinvent the wheel on your own. Teachers have designed labs that incorporate SCRATCH coding, robotics, and engineering design to create an experience that can be used by upper elementary students all the way through higher level engineering design or physics classes. The data easily exports to a spreadsheet for later analysis, in addition to allowing the user to save the video of the experiment which allows students to correlate actual events with changes recorded with the PocketLab. This tool could easily be a game changer for many science classrooms! The company offers kits for classes that are far cheaper than purchasing all of the individual probes that would record the same data.
What does the future hold?
We believe that the future of science in schools is exciting with the incorporation of some high-level tools that can enhance the learning experience for our students. Not only does it allow students to better visualize and interact with the data, but it allows the teachers to help the students to be creators of the experience. If we focus on the power of the tool for what it can do, everyone will win in the end.
Jen and Brian Cauthers
Google Certified Trainer
Google Certified Trainer
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Laurie Guyon says
Thank you so much for this awesome post! Great resources and expanations!
Brian Cauthers says
I am wondering what digital microscope you recommend for a biology classroom? I have been looking them up online, but I wanted the opinion of someone that has actually used one in the classroom setting.