Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Real Science Labs for 25 Cents
Late in the 20th century, a revolution took place in communication, and we called it the Internet. Then, came Java, a language designed to take advantage of the Internet, especially recognizing that different operating systems and browsers would be used by different people for Internet access.
One of the early educational applications of Java on the Internet was the science simulation. You could find all sorts of Java applets for stuff like projectile motion and Brownian motion. Most were free. Of course, simulations of science were already available long before - even on floppy disks.
Over a decade ago, as I sought a means to use new computer technology to help improve science education, the simulations turned me off completely because they weren't science. Simulations are equations and algorithms, the stuff of mathematics and software engineering. Using a simulation to perform a "science investigation" turns out to be more like an investigation of mathematics or a stroll into the mind of a programmer. Some simulations contain serious science errors They all mislead students into believing that science is a precise endeavor without any ambiguity in analyzing results.
Furthermore, most of these simulations use Flash animations that are really cartoons and project that unreality to students.
Still, people use them. After all, they're cheap, they're safe, and sometimes they illustrate stuff that you cannot demonstrate in the classroom (very small, very large, or very dangerous).
There's about as much value to a simulation as to a video or animated book. Those are learning tools, but they are NOT science labs; they are NOT student science investigations. You may well ask, "What exactly is a science lab?" You'll find an excellent answer in America's Lab Report, written by the National Research Council and available at http://books.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11311.
The short answer is that a science lab involves data, objects, and phenomena from the material world. Once again, you may ask, "Why is that necessary?" The answer to that question is a bit longer. America's Lab Report holds the answer. It contains seven goals for science lab experience. It says that one of the goals is special: understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. That goal is special because only science lab experiences as defined can bring direct contact of students with the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Students can only achieve this goal by doing science in the real (material) world.
Other of the seven goals, such as learning scientific reasoning and understanding the nature of science, are most efficiently learned in the lab but also can be learned by other means. Still other goals, such as mastery of subject matter or teamwork, don't really require labs at all but should, nevertheless, be goals of lab experience.
If you've read this far, you may be wondering when the 25-cent labs will appear. I really couldn't explain properly without a definition of a science lab experience - the real thing, not fake simulations. You could just dismiss it all by saying that you can get simulations for very small prices.
Here's the key idea for providing really inexpensive and great science experience to students. Use prerecorded real experiments. Set up some science experiment, for example dropping a ball to find g, the Earth's gravity. Use video and still cameras, as appropriate, to film your experiment. Change the parameters of the experiment, and film it again. Keep it up until you have lots of experiments "in the can." For dropping the ball, the ball may change for each experiment. You could compare a bowling ball with a basketball, a softball, a volleyball, and so on.
The next step is really important and is a part of the patent issued to us. You write software that allows students to view the experiments and to take data interactively frame by frame. You may have to do some editing of the film to make the collecting personal data by students easier and more precise.
It can be quite expensive to do some experiments and especially do many more variations than are ever done in an ordinary classroom lab. But, you only have to do them once. Then, the cost is amortized over all of the thousands of students who will use the labs.
The primary costs of providing these labs become support, servers, and Internet access. The above is a cursory description of the experiment part of the Smart Science(R) core learning system (www.smartscience.net). We bundle multiple labs into packages that we sell for a fixed price per class or per student. For classes using 20 of these integrated instructional lab units, the cost per student could be 25 cents. It could even be lower in high-volume cases.
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