Saturday, March 18, 2017

Thinking about Mars: Energy

Elon Musk is determined that mankind go to Mars and eventually settle there.  Put aside the myriad problems with just getting there and then being able to land people and equipment sufficient to survive for even the roughly two years before a return trip works out with the orbits of the planets.  (You can return very quickly instead, within 30 days.)  A number of sticky problems remain.  Gravity, for example, poses an unknown problem.  The low (38% of Earth’s ) gravity may create health problems and even make raising children on Mars impossible.

We can quantify the energy situation and discuss solutions. Begin with the fact that Mars has no forests from which to cut wood for fires.  It never had extensive forests or even a single plant from which to derive vast resources of coal, oil, and natural gas.  On Earth, mankind tamed fire and so could settle the entire planet while feeding those fires with wood.  Later, steam engines fueled the Industrial Revolution, and those engines were fired by wood and then by coal.  Transportation quickly came to depend on fossil fuels.  And so it goes.

Even if you had wood or fossil fuels on Mars, which you decidedly do not, you could not burn them.  The very thin atmosphere cannot support combustion, and it consists almost entirely of carbon dioxide, a gas that has been used to put our fires here on Earth.  On Mars, you have no burnable fuels and no oxygen with which to burn them.  Most of our energy on Earth still comes from fossil fuels burning in air (and creating lots of carbon dioxide).

Our future Martians must seek alternative energy sources.  Solar energy jumps out, but put that aside for last while considering other alternatives first.

What about wind?  Windmills are becoming a significant energy source on Earth.  Mars has high winds and lots of empty space.  Before going further, note that the windmill structures cannot currently be made on Mars.  It lacks the mining, refining, and manufacturing infrastructure.  Creating this infrastructure will certainly take lots of time and, more importantly, energy.  Mining uses massive amounts of energy.  Even exploring for ores take energy.  Furthermore, the equipment for mining must come from somewhere.  Without the ability to mine, refine, and manufacture, how will you make mining equipment?  It’s a Catch-22 situation.

Some suggest that you might use microbots.  Let thousands of mining bots dig up the ore.  Thousands more refining bots can turn ore into metals.  Yet more bots will form the metal ingots (possibly tiny) into usable forms that will be constructed into machines by manufacturing bots.  Putting aside that we just don’t have that technology yet, you run into another problem right away.  The laws of thermodynamics stand squarely in front of you and cannot be broken.

Digging takes quite a bit of energy whether you use it in tiny bits or all at once.  Just because your bots are small doesn’t absolve you from delivering enough total energy to the assembled bot horde to do the job.  Giant machines approach could improve efficiency or be less efficient, but the microbots certainly won’t improve efficiency by an enormous factor.  You must have the energy before you can make the energy.

The same logic applies to the refining, forming, and final assembly of the windmills.  Unfortunately, those windmills will produce only minute amounts of power.  The air on Mars is way too thin, at about 1/100 of that on Earth, to turn an ordinary windmill.  Winds on Mars do exceed 100 mph at times.  The force of those winds amounts to the force of a 10 mph wind on the Earth.  You will not have a good return on your energy investment in windmills on Mars until terraforming raises the air pressure significantly.

Another energy source that dates back far on Earth is the power of falling water.  Too bad that Mars has no liquid water, flowing or otherwise.  You won’t be building water wheels on Mars.  The same ideas apply to tidal energy.  Mars has no oceans to have tides.  Were Mars to get oceans, it has no large moon to create tides, and the Sun is too far for significant tidal motion.

Mars has a hot core that might yield geothermal energy.  Plate tectonics no longer move the surface of Mars.  It no longer has volcanoes that once were very active.  Olympus Mons on Mars, the tallest planetary mountain in our solar system, is a dead shield volcano that may have been active for centuries, building up its height from the same mantle plume because the crust was no longer moving.  Today, you’d have to drill to enormous depths to obtain geothermal energy.  That drilling would take a very large amount of energy and pipe.  Geothermal energy on Mars will remain impractical for a long time, perhaps forever.

Nuclear generators, fission and fusion, create ample supplies of energy.  Of course, fusion energy remains in the future but might be solved in a decade or so, a time that could coincide nicely with setting Mars.  Due to uncertainties regarding how large and complex a fusion power plant would be, planners cannot figure out how to move a plant to Mars and set it up.  Old-fashioned fission plants can be made rather small and could be set up on Mars in small craters to provide shielding for settlers and thus avoid the enormous containment shells we see here on Earth.  Special robots may service the nuclear power plants.  Fission power makes some sense if the components can be safely lifted to Mars and landed there and assembled without significant danger.  Unless fusion power comes soon enough, fission power plants will probably arrive on Mars before the end of the century.

For now, the only practical nuclear power source is the RTG, radioisotope thermoelectric generator.  This device uses capsules of plutonium or other radioisotopes that become quite hot from their radioactivity.  The heat powers thermocouples that generate electricity from the temperature difference between the hot plutonium and the outside.  Placing the external half to the thermocouples outside the habitat will increase the temperature difference and so increase the power generated.  Plutonium-238 is the most commonly used radioisotope and has a half-life of 87.7 years.  A Pu-238 RTG will have more than 80% of its original power after 25 years.

RTGs have a side benefit of generating heat to keep settlers warm in their habitat.  As long as the capsules do not break, they are very safe and have even been used to power pacemakers.  Their radiation is alpha rays (helium nuclei) that are readily stopped even by a sheet of paper.  Even so, plutonium is the most deadly element in the Periodic Table.  A mere speck can kill if inhaled due to induced lung cancer.  RTGs have long been used to power spacecraft.  Engineers understand the technology well.  Recent design improvements mean that they are almost certain to be a part of any Mars program.

Because a typical RTG generates around 100 watts of power (and around ten times as much heat), they will not be sufficient for anything other than auxiliary and backup emergency power in a settlement.  A more robust power source must be used to ensure survival and the possibility of exploration.

Only sunlight remains for discussion.  A Mars settlement or even a temporary Mars base will require this power source.  Using solar power on Mars poses a number of problems that must be solved.  Most solar panels weigh too much.  Flexible solar panels with a plastic substrate might be selected to avoid the extra mass.  However, the technology for making them results in less efficient panels.  We must hope that breakthroughs in solar technology over the next decade will produce light and efficient solar systems.

The sunlight on Mars is less strong than on Earth due to the additional distance to Mars, about half as strong as on Earth.  Even though the atmosphere is very thin, the omnipresent dust attenuates the sunlight and makes the efficiency of solar panels even more important than on Earth.  On Mars, you won’t be able to afford extensive solar structures to tilt the panels toward the Sun.  They take too much mass.  Instead, you’ll be rolling out the flexible panels directly on ground that has been cleared of rocks.  Dust will settle on the flat panels and must be cleared regularly.

Energy storage poses another serious issue.  Today’s battery technology has too much weight per watt-hour of storage.  Prohibitive costs for lifting all of those batteries to Mars could end the program before it has begun.  Once again, we must hope for new energy storage technologies, hypercapacitors and/or new battery chemistry, if a settlement on Mars ever can be self-sustaining.

Despite the claims of Mars One that it can put settlers on Mars with today’s technology and have them survive there indefinitely, the necessary technologies for energy production and storage will only allow them to eke out a bare survival existence.  A robust, developing settlement must have more capability than any energy technology currently in production can readily provide.

We can visit Mars with our current energy technologies, but new ideas are necessary to live there and build a new society.  Given the rapid pace of development in energy, we may have them by the time we land the first settlers on Mars, but it’s not at all certain.

Monday, November 14, 2016

NGSS and Smart Science Education

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), with their emphasis on investigation, are forcing states and districts across the country to review and revise their science curricula.  Professional development (PD) for these standards has taken front seat ahead of other science PD.

The Smart Science® online lessons were developed years before NGSS and even before the famous “America’s Lab Report” (ALR) was published.  Yet, they fit well with both the ALR recommendations and the NGSS requirements because they were created by scientists whose greatest concern centered on students understanding the nature of science rather than memorizing long lists of science vocabulary, formulas, and procedures.

The NGSS puts forth its recommendations with three areas of information.

  1. Performance Expectations
  2. Foundations
  3. Coherence

The first area, Performance Expectations, sets forth specific topics and their expectations.  However, unlike old standards, these expectations begin with words such as “Construct,” “Conduct,” “Develop,” “Apply,” and “Plan.”  Smart Science® experiments support these expectations.

The second area, Foundations, explains that every Performance Expectation may support a Practice, a Disciplinary Core Idea (DCI), and a Crosscutting Concept.

The third area, Coherence, connects each Performance Expectation to other Performance Expectations and to both ELA and math standards in the Common Core.

You will find references to modeling and to engineering design throughout the standards as well, illustrating that NGSS relates well to the STEM movement.

How will Smart Science online science lessons help teachers meet the NGSS standards?  The answer is — in every way, and they’re getting better.

First, some background on Smart Science lessons will help in following the explanations.  These lessons use a 5+1 learning pedagogy.

  1. Engage students with a video, modest text, and some opinion questions related to the lesson topic.
  2. Challenge students to make predictions, which may be based on models of data behavior while providing plenty of background material that students may use to help decide on the predictions to make.
  3. Interact with real experiments to make hands-on measurements; students may choose to use only some of the available experiments.  The data are shown in both graphical and tabular formats.
  4. Answer questions designed to ensure students were paying attention during data gathering and to delve into the deeper implications of those data.
  5. Write about the experimental experience (constructive response) in a series of prompted text areas.
+.   Explore implications of this lesson material in other areas through an open-ended project-based activity.

Performance Expectations

Smart Science Education will be expanding its coverage of the NGSS performance expectations to fill in a few minor gaps.  The technology already has the tools necessary.  For example, it has used online activities not involving measurement but still using real images and videos.  It also has the feature of “wet” labs, also known as do-it-yourself (DIY) labs.  These are done in the classroom or kitchen away from the computer with results being entered into the computer afterward.


Foundation #1: Eight Practices

1. Asking questions and defining problems

Every Smart Science® experiential (experiment-based) lesson starts with some focusing questions followed by predicting outcomes.  These both request that students ask questions.

2. Developing and using models

Many of the lessons have qualitative or quantitative predictions, models of the behavior that may occur.  The selected or written prediction is kept before the student during the experimentation phase to ensure that the chosen model remains uppermost while measurements are being made.  Results may prompt a student to modify that prediction.

At the teacher’s option, a curve fit may be made to the data values.  This fit represents a model that students should relate to the actual phenomenon being studied.

3. Planning and carrying out investigations

Students may choose among experiments and then measure each value collected interactively.  Their care in measurement affects the data quality.  Some lessons have students deciding how to categorize results.  After finishing with one experiment, students choose which one to do next.

Many students will do every single experiment, a sometimes exhausting exercise in the more advanced lessons.  Teachers guide students to choose carefully as scientists often must do.

4. Analyzing and interpreting data

The questions after the investigation and the online written lab report encourage students to figure out what their data mean.  Making measurements may not fully engage students in thinking about the lesson topic.  They must be queried and then asked to put the results and conclusions in their own words, which is exactly what the Smart Science® system requires.

5. Using mathematics and computational thinking

Some science lessons are qualitative; others are quantitative.  The quantitative ones involve mathematics in a number of ways.  They may request mathematical data analysis or understanding terms such as period, amplitude, and phase.  Lessons with multiple achievement levels will have more mathematics at the higher levels.

6. Constructing explanations and designing solutions

The report phase of each lesson has the purpose of asking students to construct explanations for what they observe.  They are prompted to do so in a series of text areas that may be augmented with essay questions about the specific lesson.

7. Engaging in argument from evidence

Teacher materials encourage teachers to have their students present their data and conclusions for an entire student group.  Teachers then can monitor the discussion to ensure that all arguments arise from evidence and not conjecture.

The reports also provide a mechanism for students to review their data and consider it as evidence to support their conclusions.

8. Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information

The extra exploration activities extend the lesson experience.  They often require students to seek out information and write about what they find out.

Foundation #2: Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI)

These are too numerous to list here.

Here’s one example from fourth-grade physical science.

Practice: 4-PS3-1. Use evidence to construct an explanation relating the speed of an object to the energy of that object. 

DCI: PS3.A. Definitions of Energy — The faster a given object is moving, the more energy it possesses.

Smart Science example: Pendulums and Energy.  This lesson compares the kinetic and potential energy of a pendulum bob as it swings and uses the student measurements rather than a theoretical equation.

Here’s one from fourth-grade life science.

Practice: 4-LS1-1. Construct an argument that plants and animals have internal and external structures that function to support survival, growth, behavior, and reproduction.
DCI: LS1.A. Structure and Function — Plants and animals have both internal and external structures that serve various functions in growth, survival, behavior, and reproduction.
Smart Science example: Stem Structure: This lesson examines the structures of many plant stems in detail to correlate functional aspects of the stem with the appearance of the structures.
Finally, here is one from fourth-grade earth and space science.

Practice: 4.ESS2-1. Make observations and/or measurements to provide evidence of the effects of weathering or the rate of erosion by water, ice, wind, or vegetation. 

DCI: ESS2.A. Earth Materials and Systems — Rainfall helps to shape the land and affects the types of living things found in a region.  Water, ice, wind, living organisms, and gravity break rocks, soils, and sediments into smaller particles and move them around.

Smart Science example: Erosion and Slope: Examine the erosion channels with differing slopes in a stream table.

Foundation #3: Crosscutting Concepts

1. Patterns

Patterns exist everywhere in the lessons, from the daily tides to seed germination.  Each lesson involves graphical display to help elucidate patterns.

2. Cause and effect: mechanism and explanation

You can hardly analyze science experiments without seeing cause and effect.  The daily tides lesson encourages students to figure out what causes tides.  Elastic and inelastic collisions lessons require analysis to figure out what quantities are conserved.  Determining molar ratios from precipitates has a similar outcome.

3. Scale, proportion, and quantity

Scale is a great topic for Smart Science® lessons.  Certainly, they cover the impact of time quantity on falling objects, and you’ll find many other examples as well.

4. Systems and system models

Each experimental lesson addresses a system, whether it’s biological (e.g. seed germination and pollution), chemical (e.g. electrochemical series), physical (e.g. collisions), or earth-based (e.g. tides).

5. Energy and matter: flows, cycles, and conservation

A number of lessons address conservation of various quantities.  More are being prepared.

6. Structure and function

You find this feature being addressed in some lessons, such as Compound Pendulum.  This area will be expanded as the system grows beyond the current 250 lessons.

7. Stability and change

Feedback plays a critical role in stability.  Students should understand the difference between positive and negative feedback.  Some Smart Science lessons illustrate this effect and more are being prepared.

The Nature of Science
The nature of science perfuses the entire Smart Science® system.  It’s hard to escape when you’re doing real experiments when you make predictions before beginning experimentation, and when you have to explain your results at the end.  The quizzes before and after the experimentation ensure that the students focus on what’s important and figure out principles rather than memorizing derived “facts” and formulas.

Engineering Design

Smart Science® lessons are being built to incorporate more engineering activities.  The system already has the technical capabilities to carry these out.  Engineering, in this context, involves two different sorts of activities.  Students must investigate specific properties of objects used in the engineering tasks.  Students also must design and create solutions to problems using these objects while understanding their properties.

The first of these activities fits nicely into the same template as the science lessons.  The materials and measurements are real.  The second fits into our “wet” lab (aka DIY) template.  Many wet labs have already been incorporated into Smart Science® lessons.  Many more will be built to focus more closely on engineering.

A. Defining and delimiting engineering problems

B. Designing solutions to engineering problems

C. Optimizing the design solution

Science, Technology, Society, and the Environment

The Smart Science® system has a series of environmental lessons that address some of the issues surrounding this topic.  More are being added.

© 2016 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Advances of Online Learning

While distance learning has a long history, online learning fits into the history of the internet.  In the 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee conceived the idea of a public network.  By the 1990s, the internet had been created and was being used for education on a small scale.  It was in this decade that the Java language was conceived and developed, based on the concept of WORA (write once, run anywhere).

Java's release in 1995 meant that online learning could use applets embedded in web pages to provide a highly interactive experience to users.  Naturally, this capability found its way into education.  Widespread use of Java in education was hindered by poor infrastructure in schools.  Internet connections were low-speed and often intermittent. Computers were frequently over five years old and could not even successfully host the Java virtual machine.  Many school connections to the internet were at speeds of just 96 kbps because high-speed internet was not available geographically or was too expensive and perceived as too unimportant for schools to adopt.

Despite these obstacles, a few pioneers began to develop forward-looking learning applications for schools.  Among these was my own company, Smart Science Education Inc. (then Paracomp, Inc.).  Our goal was and remains simple:  provide inexpensive access to excellent science learning through the medium of the internet.  We demonstrated our first version to a school in California in 1999.

The Smart Science® system includes a number of breakthrough ideas, some unique, some invented elsewhere more or less simultaneously, and some adapted from existing sources.  Important among these are:

  1. Device-agnostic software.  Then, Java was the basis.  Today, HTML5 provides that capability.
  2. Storage in the cloud.  Students can start their online lesson one computer and finish it on another, possibly quite different, computer.  Instructors have access to all student work.  Student data can be mined for insights.
  3. Real experiments.  Simulations were examined in detail and found lacking in the crucial aspects of good science education.  Only real experiments can deliver a true understanding of science.
  4. Hands-on measurement.  Nearly every online science system delivers data to students already complete.  Students push a button, and the data appear.  Students do not interact to obtain their data.  Forcing student to manually take each and every bit of data involves them in the experimental process and provides true ownership of the data by the student.
  5. Full learning scaffold.  Merely delivering experiments does not provide a complete learning experience.  Students must be prepared mentally for the experimentation.  They should make guesses as to the outcome of the experiments to engage them in the process.  They must be asked about it afterward to ensure that they were paying attention.  Finally, they have to be asked to write about what happened in their words to cement the learning in their minds.  They also may be asked to extend the knowledge that they have gained.
  6. Online learning support.  The system must provide background material, support for answering questions, vocabulary, historical context, and more.  In this way, the system ensures that every student can learn to mastery.
  7. Responsive interface.  When students take a data point, they should see the effect immediately.  For example, a mark should appear on the data collection frame, the data might appear in a data table, and a graph should reflect the new datum just collected.
This list could be extended, and these few ideas would become many.  The above should suffice to demonstrate that this is a learning system unlike others.

The above list represents the best of online science learning.  Each of the items in the list has benefits for the learner.

© 2016 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

What is a Smart Science Lesson?

Smart Science® lessons are "experiential online science lessons with real experiments and hands-on measurement."  What do these words really mean?  Break it down into three parts.  They are:

I. Experiential Online Science Lessons

II. Real Experiments

III. Hands-On Measurement

Understanding each of these leads you to understand the overall Smart Science concept and why it is poised for a new era in education.

I. Experiential Online Science Lessons

Taking this phrase from right to left, you can first analyze lessons.  A lesson is simply a learning experience.  For a lesson to be effective, it must have a beginning with introductory material, a middle where students engage in learning, and an ending with checks on learning and review.

Exactly how you set up a lesson is its pedagogy, how the learning takes place.  In Smart Science lessons, this pedagogy is based on 150-year old ideas and is also right up to date with the latest thinking.  The pedagogy challenges students to ask questions and seek answers through real-world data.  It fits perfectly with 5E pedagogy and with inquiry-based learning.

Science comes from the Latin meaning "to know."  In particular, this word has come to mean knowing about the physical world from the smallest subatomic particle to gigantic galaxy clusters, from viruses to giant sequoias, from how chemicals react to what the world was like billions of years ago.

The term online is rather well understood to mean using the Internet these days, although it could be a LAN.  The importance of this term is what is is not.  The word "virtual" often has been used to mean online, but it truly means in a virtual world, someplace unreal.  Virtual labs existed long before the Internet; they were even distributed on floppy disks at one time.  Online can include remote robotic labs today.

The connotation associated with virtual is that of a simulation, usually an animated one.  We say online to avoid the confusion of virtual.  You still have low cost, immediacy, data storage, and more.  You only lose that stigma attached to animated simulations.

Experiential really becomes the crucial word in the description.  I'm sure that you get that these are online science lessons now.  So are the lectures from Khan Academy, but they are not experiential.  The big difference comes from the lessons being highly interactive.  Students are very engaged in obtaining their own personal data.  They cannot copy from others but must do the work themselves.

In this way, students experience the lesson material.  They don't just passively absorb.  They don't merely do exercises or answer questions.  They are seeking answers to questions from real experiments.  But, I'm getting ahead of myself.  Real experiments form the next topic.

II. Real Experiments

This phrase, along with the next one, describe one of two cores of Smart Science lessons.  The second core is the pedagogy as described briefly above.  Why are real experiments preferred to simulated ones?

The most obvious reason is engagement.  Reality simply engages better than fakery.

Beyond engagement, students have the opportunity to come to grips with empirical data. Moreover, these are data that they take themselves!

Science is about understanding our universe from the tiniest to the grandest parts.  While it uses mathematics, it is not about understanding mathematics.  Scientists do not investigate equations; they use them.

III. Hands-On Measurement

Nearly every single online science system with experiments hands your data to you.  You do not have to take a single data point yourself.  Smart Science lessons are different.  Students must make their own measurements.  Measuring is an essential part of the process of science and should not be left out of student experiences, especially in grades K-12.

Smart Science lessons have much, much more.  They have assessments and constructive writing.  They provide experimental background information and vocabulary.  They are a complete learning system.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How to Pump Up AP Science Scores

Are you looking for a way to improve the pass rates or increase scores on the College Board Advanced Placement (AP) exams for laboratory science?  Boosting scores isn't easy.

A few years ago, an AP chemistry teacher faced this problem.  He had been working with the prescribed labs from the College Board but had disappointing scores.  His students just weren't learning the material.  You might fault this teacher, but he has great ratings.  Besides, conditions in his school are not very conducive to success here with classes of over 30 students and limited lab budgets.

His first try at fixing the problem was to pay for a virtual lab system that made great claims.  He pared down the lab time but kept with the College Board guidelines and just added in these virtual labs that were the usual animated simulations.  Despite this effort, nothing changed.

Fortunately for him, his district had a contract for another option, online experiential science lessons using real experiments and hands-on data measurements.  They even cost less than his first attempt.  He was desperate and ready to try anything.  So, he signed up his classes.  The difference, he says, was amazing.  His students learned the material.  Their AP exam grades went up.  He has been renewing his subscription ever since.

How can an online service produce better results than either wet labs or the premier virtual lab system?  There's no one-word answer to this question.  It takes a combination of factors to move the needle in education.  Consider a few of the factors involved here that are found in Smart Science® online experiential science lessons.

  • Real experiments.  Nearly every virtual lab does not have these.  Only real labs are convincing experiences for students.  They know full well that those animated simulations aren't real.  To some, they may even seem pointless.  Furthermore, real experiments have the systematic and random errors of the real world that help students understand the true nature of science.
  • Real experiments, part II.  Wet labs have real experiments too.  However, the range of experiments you can do in a classroom is severely limited by time and cost.  Online real experiments don't have this limitation so that students can explore a given topic more deeply.
  • Hands-on data measurement.  Those animated simulations (virtual labs) merely hand the data to students.  Those data come from an algorithm and can be created without limit and with perfect precision. While you can learn a bit about some theory this way, you learn little about science.  Moreover, students have no real data ownership, an important factor in getting them to pay attention to the data analysis part of their labs.
  • Hands-on data measurement, part II.  Taking data yourself adds a very important dimension to the science lab experience.  Students have to exercise care and judgment.  The care part is obvious.  Sloppy data collection creates sloppy data.  Judgment may come in when choosing how to categorize data or when deciding whether to include data that is unclear, such as the height of a tide when it's foggy and you can just barely make out the water level.
  • Hypothesizing.  Before beginning experiments, students should spend some time thinking about what they're about to do.  A service that includes this step will have better outcomes than one that does not.  It's best if students can write alternative hypotheses if they choose but not edit ones that they already wrote.
  • Background information.  Before hypothesizing and during experimentation, students should have access to plenty of background material to help them understand the topic they are addressing.  The Smart Science system has extensive background information available for a mouse click (or screen tap).
  • Proven pedagogy.  Many lab systems, both the online type and lab kits, have little pedagogy in them.  Some have been striving to catch up here, but only the Smart Science system had a strong pedagogy built in from the beginning.  It's called the 5+1 pedagogy and consists of the following.
    • Think - Provide a short explanation of the experiments with a little background and ask questions that focus on prior knowledge and on the sort of thinking necessary to be successful in this unit.  Provide fully worked-out answers to questions before proceeding.
    • Hypothesize - Give a brief summary of what's about to be done, a video explaining the mechanics of data collection, and plenty of background information so that students can formulate hypotheses.
    • Explore - Have a reasonable range of experiments for students to work with.  Let them measure their own data using their care and judgment.  Continue to provide support.
    • Reflect - Deliver a set of questions that forces students to think about the experiments that they have just investigated.  Allow them to use all resources, including the experimental data, to help in answering the questions. Give them the fully worked-out solutions to all questions before proceeding.
    • Explain - Write a lab report in a format that is consistent across the entire set of lessons.  This format depends on the grade level and can be customized for specific institutions.  Students must explain their findings in their own words for the science investigation experience to stick with them.
    • + Extend - This is another essay format that asks students to explore beyond the ordinary boundaries of the lesson.
  • Customization options.  No two schools or classrooms are exactly alike.  Sometimes, you must have something different from the default.  You can have students write their own hypotheses or pick from a pre-written list.  You can even change this mode in the middle of a course.  You can choose to have curves fit to student data or leave it raw and have students do their analysis offline.
  • Review at any time.  Students can review all of their Smart Science work any time during the course.  This ability to log in and review work -- and even do experiments over again -- adds considerably to their ability to pass those pesky AP exams.
  • Vocabulary.  The built-in Science Dictionary has over 1,000 terms defined in simple language.  Selected terms are included in each lesson as appropriate to the topic.  Students don't have to go elsewhere to find out what all of those science phrases mean.
  • HTML5.  While HTML5 is a technical issue, it opens the door to many things.
    • Device agnostic.  Students are able to get to their Smart Science lessons even on a smart phone as well as tablets, Chromebooks, Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux.  Only an HTML5-compatible browser is necessary with support for canvas and video tags.
    • Language accessibility.  Google translate will turn our lesson pages into just about any language commonly used, around 80 altogether.  Because most of our content is written in simple English, the translation works very well.
    • Accessibility.  We not only use HTML5, we also use GWT, which automatically includes many accessibility features.  HTML5 also allows for ready speaking of content by various programs.  Just highlight and click.
Look for more information at, or just give us a call at the number at the top of the home page.  There's even a link there so that you can try out our technology for yourself.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Friday, January 09, 2015

Fact Follows Fiction

I wrote Martian Rhapsody (on Amazon for 99 cents in the e-book edition) to include plenty of science and scientific speculation.  A new article by Johnny Bontemps gives credence to one of the speculations.

This article not only suggests the possibility of life existing on Mars billions of years ago but also implies that life began on Mars, if it began, at least 200 million years earlier than it did on Earth.

The scientist quoted, Nora Noffke, has spent 20 years studying very ancient, over 3 billion years old, formations on Earth that were formed by bacteria.  She spent weeks analyzing images from Mars to determine whether they matched those on Earth and how closely.  While she cannot absolutely rule out non-biological origins, she thinks that the likelihood is small.

Scientists cannot simply state things such as "life on Mars" without overwhelming evidence, but now the evidence is very strong indeed.

© 2015 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Book Review: Teaching Lab Science Courses Online

This book basically is a very long advertisement. You will find some useful information here if you ignore the blatant bias toward the company that the authors founded.

I am a scientist with a B.S. from Caltech and a PhD from Columbia university. I was chair of the Northeastern Section (3,500 members) of the American Chemical Society and an assistant professor at Northeastern University. This topic is very important to me as I believe that online education is our future.

This book makes many excellent arguments for online science labs but fails to consider more recent innovations than lab kits.

It also focuses on just college students when a discussion of K-12 education would fall within the title's purvey, "Teaching Lab Science Courses Online."

At the end of this review, I'll briefly discuss real alternatives to this book's conclusion that you must pay dearly for lab kits in online education.

College students fall into two groups with very different education requirements. The science majors should have every opportunity to experience real laboratory situations. The majority are non-science majors who must be exposed to scientific reasoning and the nature of science as much as possible at the least cost. Lab kits are very expensive, often well over $200 per student. Lab kits limit the range of experimentation because of the liability issues discussed in the book. Our students deserve better. Students can find ways to game the system and not even open up their lab kits at all. Pictures of the experiments can provide some proof, but the student can "photoshop" their own image into the pictures and so avoid having to do any real science at all. At the end of this review, I'll mention alternatives not in the book.

The book discusses simulations and virtual labs and explains some of their shortcomings. It does not mention that such experiences, when presented as labs, completely misrepresent the nature of science. Nevertheless, the book clearly explains that simulations are not authentic science investigation experiences and won't be until long in the future if ever.

Next, it discusses Remote Access Laboratories (RAL). It misses the essential point that students are not collecting their own data using their own judgment and care. These labs are distant and disconnected from the student experience. Only the more sophisticated students will benefit from this sort of experience.

The hybrid lab experience also comes under analysis. This "straw man" lab is readily shot down as being expensive, not timely, and still quite costly.

Kitchen labs also come under criticism with the focus on science majors. For the non-science major, they can readily be an excellent part of science instruction. The problem faced by education institutions is how to provide the remainder of the instruction. The book also decries the high cost of kitchen science labs, a false charge, especially when compared with the cost of lab kits.

The book then discusses the "commercially assembled lab kits." It mentions three suppliers and specifically recommends one, Hands-On Labs. I have personally interacted with all three suppliers. Is this book really a very long commercial?

Very importantly, this book completely ignores an important and viable alternative to lab kits, while emphasizing the kit positives and downplaying their negatives. For over a decade, prerecorded real experiments have been available at much lower cost and much greater science learning capability.

The book goes on to list the rather obvious requirements for an online science course. This list may be useful to the novice but should be well known to any experienced instructor.

Much of the book is devoted to running an online science course, including how to avoid cheating on lab reports. That's a difficult proposition that would be made easier were the data not capable of being copied. Even hands-on, in-school labs have this problem.

"Possession of a lab kit does not guarantee that students will actually perform their lab work, but because lab kits are not cheap, it is likely that students who purchase them will actually perform their own lab work and not waste such an expensive investment." This statement is utterly untrue. Students spend much more money on tuition yet constantly seek ways to "game" the system to get better grades. If a student can buy a grade by purchasing a lab kit and doing nothing more, you can be certain that many will.

The book mentions "access dates." Yet, lab kits have no built-in method of tracking actual usage.

The remainder of the book retraces the discussion of various approaches to online science education, again leaving out the one real alternative, prerecorded real experiments. It constantly harps on LabPaq as if you had no other choice.

Let's face it. Online education is the future. We don't know exactly how that future will play out, but it must happen. Science happens to be a particularly difficult part of that future. If you're willing to pay for them, lab kits can play a role. However, they have their problems. The cost is one problem. Another is monitoring students. There's also the rather cookbook nature of most kits, the included manual with strict step-by-step instructions, as they must be for liability concerns.

This book is very correct in its condemnation of simulations. They have their place in learning, but it's not as lab replacements. Furthermore, this entire book places little emphasis on middle school high school, and non-science major college science instruction. But that's where our nation's primary problems lie.

For those who are not majoring in science, all of the equipment manipulation and detailed procedures are unimportant. What must remain after the course is not how to operate a burette but how to think as scientists do, understanding the nature of science, and appreciating the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Long after students forget the stages of mitosis, they will be able to use their newly developed thinking powers to improve their lives. They'll have Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit" well in hand.

How can this all be accomplished by middle schools, high schools, and colleges (for non-science majors)? Reduce the number of hands-on labs. Use kitchen labs for kinesthetic experience if the course is online. Add in the excellent learning experience of prerecorded real experiments. They come with highly interactive software that has students taking their own individual data from real experiments while using their own care and judgment. The data are not predetermined. The experience truly is authentic.

Importantly, this experience can improve the educational experience while reducing costs and raising achievement.

This approach is unique, patented, and a decade old. Over 100,000 students have already experienced this approach with great success. Colleges, high schools, and middle schools, both online and traditional, are using it today. Don't be pushed into spending big bucks on lab kits until you've analyzed the alternatives. This book left one out, and the HOL people know about it. Ask why they don't want you to know.

© 2011 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Smart Science® Labs Go Mobile

In a major new release of Smart Science® online hands-on labs, they're now mobile with HTML 5.  Using the Google Web Toolkit, the new software is more accessible for the handicapped and available on a long list of devices.

The world's only online hands-on labs and best way to learn science are now available on a long list of web devices including:
  • Android tablets
  • Android phones
  • iPad
  • iPhone
  • Chromebook
  • Laptops and desktops
    • Linux
    • Windows
    • Mac OS X
    • various Unix systems
In fact, any system that supports the CANVAS and VIDEO tags of HTML 5 will run Smart Science labs now. Just be sure that Javascript is enabled.

For a quick preview and check of compatibility, see our home page and click on the "TRY OUR NEW HTML 5 LITE DEMO NOW"  link in the upper right corner.

Smart Science online hands-on labs have been bringing real science to the online world for over a decade.  With more than 150 labs and different reading and math levels for content, these labs will meet your science learning goals, including NGSS and America's Lab Report.

Finally, you can have the world's best science learning at your students' fingertips anywhere they have Internet access and on their own devices.

© 2013 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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California State University to Use Smart Science Labs

I am very proud to announce that Smart Science Education Inc. has a contract to supply our online hands-on science labs to the 23 campuses of the California State University, the largest university system in the United States with over 400,000 students enrolled.

Smart Science® labs are the only virtual labs developed outside of the CSU system to be chosen for use in the program to add virtual labs to science courses at CSU campuses.  This action comes as a result of a mandate by the state's governor to remove system bottlenecks in all state colleges, including the University of California and the California Community College system.  With rising enrollments, available lab seats have held back many students from graduating on time because of the necessity of fulfilling a laboratory science requirement.

The Smart Science approach to online labs differs from all others in that it uses real experiments, video recorded, and has sophisticated software that allows students to take their own data using their care and judgment just as in typical classroom labs.  This approach is patented, and more patents are in process.

The point of science labs should be to do real science, to inquire,  investigate, and discover.  In general education classes, there's no real necessity for learning laboratory technique.  It is, however, crucial to have an understanding of the nature of science, to develop scientific thinking skills, and to appreciate the complexity and ambiguity of empirical data.  In many instances, Smart Science explorations fulfill these goals better than the traditional lab experiences.

© 2013 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Thursday, February 07, 2013

Remote Robotic Labs and Smart Science® Explorations

Recently, someone asked about the differences between remote robotic labs and the Smart Science® exploration online hands-on labs. This question may arise in the minds of many.

The various remote robotic labs (RRL), including MIT's iLab, are different in some important aspects. Because our approach is so different, educators often have trouble understanding the differences compared to approaches with which they may be familiar.  This explanation should help to clear up any questions.

A RRL provides data automatically. You set up your parameters, whatever those may be, and push a virtual button. Often, you see nothing transpire at the remote site. After a brief pause, you're handed a sheaf of data electronically. For advanced students, that may be just fine, but for ordinary students, all of the trouble of setting up the RRL has been wasted. You might as well have stored the data from yesterday (or last year) along with any imagery and provided that. In that event, you could have just provided this information locally. The students wouldn't know the difference and probably wouldn't even care.

RRLs have limited range. They cannot do Sordaria crossing over or seed germination experiments. You can imagine doing tides, but the real-time aspect is lost because students are not there in real time the entire time that data are being captured. And so it goes. You cannot base an entire biology or chemistry course on just RRLs.

RRLs have limited access. If you attempt to scale RRLs, you must have more pieces of expensive or unique equipment. Depending on the precise experiment being run, the time that the machine is available controls how many students can use it during a given hour-long period. It's not unlimited. You know that you cannot deliver to a million students per hour and probably not even to a thousand.

Our approach takes the online hands-on lab (OHOL) path. We toss out the pretense of real-time experiments. (I say pretense because there's always a delay between data capture and arrival at the student workstation.) In its place, we open up entire new vistas of learning science.

The OHOL way does not deliver data automatically. Students truly must interact to take their own data. As in the tides example, those data are different for different students doing the same experiment with the same parameters.

With OHOL, you have a visual experience. With tides, you watch the actual tides and then measure them yourself.

An OHOL can be created for any experiment you can record on video and take data from. The data may be quantitative, semi-quantitative, or qualitative. They are your data, not those of a machine. The experiment videos may be from a high-speed camera or from a time-lapse camera. They may even combine multiple cameras as with the shadows lab where one camera follows the Sun with a fish-eye lens and the other tracks the path of a shadow.

What do OHOLs and RRLs have in common? None of the data are invented. They all come from the real world. The various forms of real wet labs also have this feature. However, only manual wet labs and OHOLs are truly hands-on in the sense that you take your own data point by point.

Our technology allows for an unlimited number of scenarios. We're only limited by our imagination and our resources. We have done as many as 100 experiments to create one lab. The number of experiments available is also a function of the pedagogy. Students can be confused by having 30 experiments available. Some will think that they must do every one rather than exercise judgment (actually think) despite our telling them otherwise. It becomes the instructor's task to handle this issue because instructors control grades, and students who do every single experiment available are doing so because they think they'll improve their grades. The instructor must convince them that lack of thought will reduce their grades. Our best efforts cannot do so because we do not hand out grades.

There's much more to this picture. For example, we insist on students making predictions before beginning experiments. We provide introductory (pre-lab or formative) assessments and summary (post-lab or summative) assessments. We provide extensive background resources and an online lab report that can be customized for your classes.

The above is not to say that RRLs have no value. On the contrary they are the go-to labs of the future for college engineering courses. They open up the use of expensive equipment that many schools cannot afford to undergraduate engineering students. They have limited use for college science courses. The limitations are those of the medium that requires complete automation and relatively quick experiment completion. They're of little value in K-12 education. You can find better ways to learn any science concept at that level, with the possible exception of advanced or honors courses and then, as with college science, only with a very few investigations.

© 2013 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

NGSS Have Problems

You can read a review of NGSS at  However, that's not the entire story.  Here's the rest of the story.

In the NGSS, "crosscutting concepts" are concepts that span all disciplines of science and engineering and help, according to the authors, to tie the standards together.  As a chemist, I look at those associated with chemistry standards.  I also look most closely at high school standards to see what the highest level of the standards do.

The crosscutting concepts in high school chemistry (Structure and Properties of Matter and Chemical Reactions) are listed as follows:

  • Cause and Effect
  • Systems and System Models
  • Energy and Matter
  • Structure and Function
  • Stability and Change
  • Patterns
The one crosscutting concept I see missing here is Obtaining First-Hand Data from the Real World.

Science is about exploring the real world and is an open exercise that explores what really happens, not what should happen in an ideal system.  While ideal systems are used as models against which to compare real data, scientists don't really care about models except as a tool.

Here's one sample standard that exemplifies the approach of the NGSS.

Analyze and interpret provided data about bulk properties of various substances to support claims about the relative strength of the interactions among particles in the substance.
 The standard does not specify whether the provided data are to be real or manufactured.  In this instance, you might infer that data are real.

In the section on Forces and Interactions, you'll find the following standard that is much less clear.

Analyze data to support the claim that Newton’s second law of motion describes the mathematical relationship among the net force on macroscopic objects, their mass, and acceleration.
 From where do these data arise?  Is it from student experiments, from teacher experiments or demonstrations, or from a formula?  Very often, the data will come from a simulation, e.g. a formula.  You can expect teachers, when allowed by their state and local standards, to resort to this easier and more "reliable" approach whenever possible.

What does it mean to analyze manufactured data?  Here, you're using F=ma to generate data, and those data are then used to infer that the model they represent is F=ma.  This sort of thing is ludicrous.  I'd use stronger language but refrain out of respect for the reader.

This is a closed cycle.  A formula generates data that are used to verify the same formula.  In science, however, it's always an open system.  Data come from the real world, or as America's Lab Report  (ALR) says, "the material world."  Indeed, ALR insists that data originate in the material word in order for an activity truly to be a science investigation.  Ultimately, these data are analyzed and may result in a model of the real world.

The difference is as night and day.  Where ALR focuses on student actually obtaining their own data for the most part, NGSS has students working with provided data.  Is there no hope?

Later on, the following standard provides some relief.

Design and conduct an investigation to support claims about how electric and magnetic fields are created.
Here, students must do experiments and collect their own data.  However, there's one minor problem as the Clarification Statement shows.
Qualitative observations only.
So, here is the one actual piece of lab work in HS.Forces and Interactions, and it's entirely qualitative.   You cannot do much with purely qualitative data.

Finally, under Energy, you can find a real lab.

Design and conduct an investigation to support the claim that the transfer of thermal energy between components results in a more uniform energy distribution among the components of a closed system
In this standard, students are requested to "[use] mathematical thinking to describe the energy changes both quantitatively and conceptually."

That's it for the physical science portion of the standards.  One quantitative investigation and one qualitative one -- for an entire year of physical science or for two years of chemistry and physics.

To be fair, these are "core concepts," and states, districts, and teachers are free to add to them and extend them.  However, if the states and districts do not mandate laboratory investigations, then teachers will tend to avoid the extra time and budgetary stress of true lab investigations.

I find these standards to be rather shallow for leaving out important concepts (e.g. the mole) and for failing to insist on more first-hand quantitative investigations.

They've become so enamored of their cross-cutting concepts and of integrating engineering into science that they've lost the very essence of science.

© 2013 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ravitch Ravages Reforms

Prof. Diane Ravitch has written a piece on education reform that has been reproduced in the Washington Post's blog by Valerie Strauss:

You'll find the original here:

There's much truth in what Diane Ravitch says and some exaggeration. She puts every single effort at improving our educational system in the same pot, tars them with the same brush. However, education is not so simple.

What's so bad about having some core standards that we can adopt nationwide? Only one thing -- that these might be the beginning of ever tightening national controls instead of a set of basic standards that can be adjusted periodically to allow for changes and to adjust based on feedback. We have to start somewhere. Our current Babel of standards is confusing to everyone and very costly. It's easier for states and districts to build on a foundation than to do all of the work themselves.

What about charter schools? These were intended by the most altruistic educators as laboratories for new ideas. They quickly morphed into a new way to make money. The average charter school has results similar to the average public school. Charter schools should remain a small percentage of the overall number lest our public schools be turned into places for our most challenged students to fail.

How about online education with ratios of 1:100 or even 1:200? I know of online teachers with 1:450. A high school teacher with five classes of 30 has a ratio of 1:150. The ratio of 1:100 doesn't seem so scary any more. Technology does allow more students per teacher without loss of quality, but not all technology delivers on this promise. Some even worsens the situation. There's no reason why education should not gain from advances in technology. It should free our teachers from much of the drudgery of teaching to become the inspiring mentors that most long to be. It should allow our best teachers to reach and influence and inspire more students. That outcome should be considered a good thing.

Teachers' unions have been demonized to a greater degree than they deserve. However, by the expedient of putting job security ahead of pay, they've contributed to this perception. There's no easy answer here, but neither removing teacher unions nor enshrining them is the answer. I'd like to see some try out a sliding scale of semi-tenure. You might give teachers longer contracts as they accumulate seniority, for example. At fifteen years, you could provide a ten-year contract, essentially until retirement.

Prof. Ravitch is right to raise the alarm about "reforms." These reforms are often about some political goal and have nothing to do with improving education. However, she should reduce the volume by a few decibels and not toss every possible change out. Doing as we have been doing is not the solution either.

© 2012 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Flaw in America's Lab Report

In 2005, the National Research Council published America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science ( This report delivers a scathing indictment of the “typical” lab experience for high school students. It also provides solutions to this sorry situation in the form of a definition for a science laboratory experience, seven goals for the experience, and four integration goals to ensure that science labs fit well into the overall student learning experience. The report covers a great deal of ground including the history of science labs in education.

In discussing science laboratory history in education, the report makes a mistake. This mistake may appear trivial. However, it unveils a serious flaw in how people perceive the history of education. We should not focus only on education errors in the early years but should also examine the successes. There's another problem as well with the following two paragraphs that are taken from pages 19 and 20 of the report.
In these early years, American educators emphasized the theoretical, disciplinary goals of science education in order to prepare graduates for further science education. Because of this emphasis, high schools quickly embraced a detailed list of 40 physics experiments published by Harvard instructor Edwin Hall (Harvard University, 1889). The list outlined the experiments, procedures, and equipment necessary to successfully complete all 40 experiments as a condition of admission to study physics at Harvard. Scientific supply companies began selling complete sets of the required equipment to schools and successful completion of the exercises was soon required for admission to study physics at other colleges and universities (Rudolph, 2005).
At that time, most educators and scientists believed that participating in laboratory experiments would help students learn methods of accurate observation and inductive reasoning. However, the focus on prescribing specific experiments and procedures, illustrated by the embrace of the Harvard list, limited the effectiveness of early laboratory education. In the rush to specify laboratory experiments, procedures, and equipment, little attention had been paid to how students might learn from these experiences. Students were expected to simply absorb the methods of inductive reasoning by carrying out experiments according to prescribed procedures (Rudolph, 2005).

The references are to the following cite: Rudolph, J.L. (2005). Epistemology for the masses: The origins of the “scientific method” in American schools. History of Education Quarterly, 45(2), 341- 376.

It's easy to be arrogant about people's ideas from over 100 years ago. We know so much more now or think that we do. Prof. Hall was the person who discovered the Hall Effect. He developed a series of experiments for students and published them in a pamphlet issued by Harvard University in 1887. The final, revised edition of this pamphlet appeared in 1889 and was superseded by a book, A Text-Book of Physics Largely Experimental (Hall, E. H. and Bergen, J. Y., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1895) with an original copyright date of 1891. The quotes herein are taken from the 1895 edition.

The number of “exercises” in the book taken from the pamphlet is 46, of which Prof. Hall suggests that any six may be omitted. Numerous additional exercises fill the book, which runs to about 390 pages including appendices and index.

The introduction, addressed “To the Teacher,” describes his approach to teaching physics through experimentation. Extensive quotes from this introduction will demonstrate that Prof. Hall was not so focused on “prescribing specific experiments and procedures” as America's Lab Report (ALR) and, by reference, the Rudolph paper indicate. Instead, they illustrate that Prof. Hall was very concerned with avoiding that path and providing some real opportunities for scientific thinking among the students using his experiments.

The fact of having a list of experiments that might be done has a definite purpose. Prof. Hall writes, “It soon became evident, in view of the inexperience of teachers and the very different standards and methods likely to be adopted by them, that a special course of experiments, carefully thought out and described with much detail, was needed to make the new plan a success.” (Page iii) His problems were associated with the preparatory school teachers, not with the students.

He goes on to explain, “There could be no doubt that, if the course was to be kept from degenerating into mere perfunctory trifling with apparatus, there must be a backbone of quantitative work, ...” Interestingly, given the historical sequence provided by ALR, Prof. Hall chose his experiments based on “practical utility.” He writes, “An attempt was made to bring together such experiments as would have the most frequent and important applications in ordinary life, in the conviction that these would be, on the whole, quite as interesting and important in every other way as any that could be chosen under a different program of selection.” (p. iv)

In the early 1900s, according to ALR, “[Charles] Mann and others attacked the 'dry bones' of the Harvard experiments, calling for a high school physics curriculum with more personal and social relevance to students.” This statement directly contradicts the intent of Prof. Hall as quoted above. Perhaps, the Hall experiments simply, as so many other efforts in education do, became dated in the eyes of some.

Again, according to ALR, “Students were expected to simply absorb the methods of inductive reasoning by carrying out experiments according to prescribed procedures.” Yet, Prof. Hall takes particular pains to avoid this approach.

This book is intended for the use of the student, to enable him to derive the full benefit of his experimental work; to guide him in his thinking, but not to relieve him from the necessity of thinking.” (p. v)

He points out that conclusions to be drawn from experiments by students are deferred somewhat in the book “in order that the student may have an opportunity to frame one for himself; as to numerical results of the various exercises the book gives little or no hint.” (Page v) Finally, on this same page, he puts the lie to the idea that he's produced a cookbook for physics. “Hence the apprehension that some teachers may have, lest the book may give too much assistance to the students, will probably be dissipated upon careful examination. (p. v)
With regard to the detailed nature of some of the experimental directions, Prof. Hall makes the following statement, “The directions given in this pamphlet are in some cases very minute. They are, however, intended to show how the experiments may be done, not how they must be done.” Without detailed directions, some teachers would be lost, whether or not the students were.

He goes on to say, “... the student ... is placed, so far as this is practicable, in the attitude of an investigator seeking for things unforetold. But this attitude, if rigidly maintained, would be likely to keep him for an absurdly long time upon the study of one set of facts, or induce the habit of loose and hasty generalization. ... He should not be told what he is expected to see, but he must usually be told in what direction to look."

In many ways, we see in Prof. Hall quite a modern approach to teaching science. Students work on experiments that connect to “applications in ordinary life.” They are not told the answers but are left to discover them for themselves. Their inquiry is not “open” nor “directed” but is “guided.”

Prof. Hall concludes, “... the main value of the student's inferences, in themselves, is that they will enable him to understand, and without undue stretch of faith to accept, the established conclusions of physicists, and these conclusions should in the end always be made known to him.” (p. xi) He does not prescribe a method for discussing the student inferences. Today, that might be a class discussion in which all students are invited to contribute their inferences, and the teacher guides to the class to talk about the differences and, ultimately, allows for comparison with the current state of the art.

On an earlier page, he provides a summary of his objectives.

The objects to be sought in the course of experimental physics ... may be stated thus: 1st, to train the young student by means of tangible problems requiring him to observe accurately, to attend strictly, and to think clearly; 2d, to give practice in the methods by which physical facts and laws are discovered; 3d, to give practical acquaintance with a considerable number of these facts and laws, with a view to their utility in the thought and action of educated men. (p. vii)

Thus, the conclusion in ALR that, under the Hall approach, “students were expected to simply absorb the methods of inductive reasoning by carrying out experiments according to prescribed procedures” fails under scrutiny of Hall's actual writing.

There's a larger context here as well. ALR uses a secondary source (Rudolph) in place of a primary source (Hall). Scientists all know that such a procedure is dangerous because it puts the filter of the author of the secondary source between us and the actual material. If the secondary source has some particular bias or even simply has limited the scope of the paper, then important, even critical, material may be left out. The preceding discussion shows that, in this particular case, what all scientists know is certainly correct. The ALR authors should have taken the extra time to complete the research rather than relying on a secondary source.

More importantly, the way in which the history is related suggests that the science teachers of old (100+ years ago) didn't know what they were doing. The implication is that although we may learn from their mistakes, they don't have much in the way of positive ideas to offer to 21st century education. Edwin H. Hall is not the only person of his time thinking along the same lines. An important science education writer in England, Frederick W. Westaway, also wrote extensively on teaching science. Others were also active in the pursuit of ways to implement an inquiry-based approach to learning science.

These people were quite successful in graduating students who could think. The reasons for the lack of success of their methods in taking science education by storm is found quite readily. Westaway writes eloquently about the requirements for teachers using his methods, and you'd be hard-pressed to locate any secondary science teacher who could fulfill them today. The requirements include a broad understanding of many areas of science along with deep knowledge of the history of science and thorough comprehension of the philosophy of science.

Hall says, “Not more than half as many pupils at a time can be directed to advantage as can be heard in recitation: perhaps the number twelve is a fair limit.” (p. vi) Where can you find today a class of twelve or fewer science students? How can we expect in today's circumstances to limit every science class's size to twelve?

Hall makes a point that remains germane today. We can remake curricula, set standards, deploy new science labs, train new teachers, retrain current teachers, and make all of the other changes and interventions we'd like. However, we'll never be able to achieve the ideal of oversight for guided inquiry without a breakthrough of some sort. Twelve is not a viable upper limit for class sizes. Few teacher candidates can reach Westaway's ideals for a science teacher in any reasonable number of years.

ALR makes clear that using simulations as lab experiences fail the students miserably. Yet, computer and Internet technology provides our greatest hope for reaching the Hall and Westaway ideal in today's schools. We must find ways to utilize this technology that will work in classes of 30 or so students and that do not require extreme teacher training.

The goal of adequate student science investigation experience for all students in every science class must be realized. As ALR clearly shows, we are failing our students today by not doing our best to reach this goal. We have the means and a road map (ALR). We simply must choose to succeed.

© 2012 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A.
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