Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Are Science Labs Vanishing from K-12 Classes?

The pressures on science teachers just keep increasing. Authorities have been taking away their labs for years.

High-stakes testing requires time for the test and for preparation. Where does that time come from? Often, it comes from the lab time because labs are inefficient at learning content, the main focus of high-stakes tests.

Safety regulations have increased considerably in recent years. Now, you cannot have mercury in your classroom at all, for example. States and districts have banned experiments considered hazardous, an action that further limits the ability of teachers to provide lab experience to students.

Budget cuts have hit science departments particularly hard. The cost of providing expendibles and maintaining equipment for experiments has forced the removal of many excellent lab experiences from curricula.

Because many science teachers have been asked to teach in unfamiliar areas, they aren't prepared to develop and run effective labs in these areas. As a result, they do fewer labs.

At the same time, authorities are asking science teachers to provide more lab experience for their students. They rightly argue that such experiences, if done well, can help generate enthusiasm for science, help in understanding the nature of science, help improve scientific reasoning skills, and generally improve student outcome in science courses.

I say that these contradictory trends can only be resolved by the innovative use of technology, and I have chosen to work toward that end. My efforts are beginning to bear the fruit of interest from major online schools, large school districts, and important publishers.

Here's a comparison of the different means that people now employ to provide lab experience to high school students. The list includes hands-on experiments, simulations, large online databases, remote robotic experiments, and prerecorded real experiments. I have been working on this last item.

Simulationsfree to midnoneshorthighlownovery large
Online DBsfreemidmid

free to lowmid to highmidhighlownosmall
lowhighshorthighlownovery large

NOS means "Nature of Science"
Design means "opportunity for experimental design"
Range means "range of experiments available"

Clearly, the choices you make for science labs depend on your goals for the labs. If cost is your primary consideration, then you'll minimize the number of hands-on labs you do. For example, you can use free simulations while sacrificing quality and the nature of science.

Remote robotics and large online databases can be used but, due to their small range, can only fill in for a small amount of a typical high school science course at best.

In my opinion, there's really no contest. Trim down the number of hands-on labs by eliminating those that cost too much, take too long, or don't work well to teach an understanding of the nature of science. Replace these labs with prerecorded real experiments. Pay close attention to the four lab integration goals of America's Lab Report. Ideally, increase the number of investigation experiences by adding more prerecorded real experiments. Find a place in your course for one or two ongoing investigation projects each semester. These projects may involve online databases, remote robotics, hands-on work, field trips, and even prerecorded real experiments or some combination.

You can improve the student investigation experience and handle budget shortfalls too.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Simulations are Not Science

Simulations, especially animated simulations, are a great learning tool. They can help students visualize and understand difficult concepts in science classes. Interactive animated simulations can engage students with the concepts. However, you must be careful when inserting simulations into science labs, that is, into student scientific investigations.

Simulations in science have a long and highly-reputed history. They're really the output of calculations from a model. Newton used them to help him investigate his ideas about gravity. He even invented new mathematics to aid in his work. Until recently, the work involved in modeling (simulations) was intense and lengthy. Computers have changed all that. In fact, the first computer was used for simulations.

You might say that simulations are a hallowed tool of science, but they aren't science themselves any more than microscopes, telescopes, or spectrophotometers are science. Scientists don't investigate simulations; they investigate the universe and all of its contents. They may make models of their theories and spend considerable time adjusting these models to see how they may fit with real-world data.

Simulations in science education are another matter entirely. The issue of the appropriate roles of simulations in the science classroom has become very important lately due to the lowering costs of computers and the number of new science simulation options being offered to educators. How should one take best advantage of this sudden abundance?

An example may aid in this discussion. Consider projectile motion, one of the earliest and most common science simulations. For the simplest case of a projectile in a vacuum and a uniform gravitational field, there's no problem writing the equations of motion or calculating the projectile path and impact point. The projectile position is a simple function of time and starting parameters such as initial height, angle of launch, launch energy, and projectile mass.

Indeed, the equations are so simple that a student can perform the calculations necessary to determine the projectile path for a given set of parameters in minutes with a hand-held calculator. A beginning student of computer programming can write a program to print tables of the position in a very short time. All that an existing computer simulation does is save time and, if animated, display the projectile motion.

All of these approaches begin with an assumed equation of motion. Should students be working to discover this equation or using it in some other fashion? Are they investigating a mathematical formula or learning about gravity and motion?

An instructor might have students investigate the motion of real projectiles with the goal of elucidating ideas about motion. Then, these ideas could be used to create a mathematical model. The model can be used to generate data to compare with the real data. Error analysis will help to determine whether discrepancies are within the precision of the real experiments or whether the model has flaws that require revision of the original ideas upon which they were based.

This approach uses simulations in an entirely suitable fashion, one parallel with that which scientists use.

On the other hand, an instructor might decide to use an animated simulation of projectile as the object of student investigation. An entire set of questions could be posed for resolution by the process of trying different parameters in the simulated model. The intended object may be science, but the actual investigation is of some equations, and error analysis, etc. do not enter into this activity at all.

Unless this instructor issues a very strong caveat, students may develop a misunderstanding of science when performing this exercise. The equations have unlimited precision, unlike the real world. They also represent an idealization of the real world.

The gravity field is not uniform. The projectiles do not move through a vacuum. Imprecisions exist in the measurements of the parameters. Investigations of the real world will illuminate these issues and help students to understand science. Science courses are not simply about memorizing content. While simulations may help with content, they have to be used very, very carefully in the investigation part of the course or not at all so that they don't interfere with the important learning that should go on here.

Educators should stop using simulations as the objects of investigations and very carefully use them to augment investigations appropriately or not at all.

These statements should not be interpreted as a license for hands-on purists to decry the use of virtual labs in science courses. Hands-on experiments have their own problems and will be the subject of a later blog entry.

Smart Science® education has found one way to thread the path between the science learning benefits of hands-on experiments and the efficiency benefits of virtual labs.
© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
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Monday, October 19, 2009

Balloon Boy Hoax??

The nation and its news channels were transfixed by a saucer-shaped hot air balloon traveling across Colorado. It purportedly might have contained a six-year old boy.

While the sheriff's office tracked the balloon, and many news channels trumpeted the "news," no one even thought to figure out whether a boy could be inside of this device.

Is our entire nation crazy, or do we, as a nation, simply lack simple scientific reasoning skills?

The first question anyone with any reasoning skills should ask is, "Can such a device lift a six-year old?" This sort of question is readily answered with available information.

At sea level, a hot air balloon might have a lift of 0.025 lb/cu ft or a bit more if the air is hot enough. For a boy to be alive inside of the balloon and not fall out dead or nearly so, the air could not be hotter than the estimate of 300° F. At Fort Collins, the lift would be substantially less because of the one mile altitude.

The balloon owners could readily provide the authorities with the dimensions of the balloon. We can see from images that its diameter is about 15-20 ft and its height around 6 ft. A few simple back-of-the-envelope calculations show that this device will have a lift of about 50 lbs at sea level and less at one mile high. Its own weight might be around 10 lbs. To be inside of the balloon, the child must have some structure on which to sit. That structure would also have weight, maybe around 10 lbs more.

The net lift of the balloon would be less than 30 lbs. If you know of a six-year boy who weighs less than 30 lbs, then he is very underweight for his age. But that's not all. According to reports, the balloon reached a height of 15,000 ft, about 2 miles above the starting altitude. With a six-year old boy as ballast, it could never have even come close to that height.

This hoax was more than just a publicity stunt. Perhaps inadvertently, it was a test of our population's ability to think. How could a large group of law enforcement officers and a fair number of news organizations not have considered the scientific rationality of the claim of a boy in such a small hot air balloon? Have we trained our citizens so poorly that those who present the world to us cannot ask and answer the simplest and most basic questions?

Shame on all of them for not bothering to spend just a few minutes thinking -- or at least asking someone who can think to do so. The question was obvious. Can a six-year be inside of that hot air balloon? The answer takes only a few minutes for any reputable scientist to answer.

If our students learned more about what science is all about, then they might have been able to answer this question or at a minimum to pose it. We most seriously must have an improvement in our education system right away. Real science labs will help to prepare a sufficient fraction of our people to confront issues such as this one so that we won't be duped repeatedly.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

School Science Labs

A recent article in District Adminstration magazine ( discusses the aging science labs in schools across our nation and the cost of upgrading them all.

The article points out that science standards have been raised recently while lab facilities have been left to deteriorate. The costs of fixing the existing labs run between $150 and $200 per square foot meaning that an adequate lab space for 24 students will cost around $250,000 to upgrade.

In these days of plunging school budgets, this allocation of funds is simply not possible.

However, there's another answer. Scale back the full upgrade of the lab spaces so that only inexpensive, safe, and efficient hands-on labs are done. Safety equipment may be partially eliminated. Gas would no longer be required. Bunsen burners come from the 19th century and are really archaic today. Highly chemical resistant desktops could be replaced with less expensive alternatives.

Why can we make this adjustment? Because the primary advantages of hands-on labs are two-fold.
  1. They provide a kinesthetic learning experience, rounding out the other learning in science classes.
  2. They allow students to do experimental design and redesign.
Any other purpose cited for having hands-on labs either can be handled in other, safer and less expensive ways or is not really necessary for high school students. The two purposes listed above are easily achieved in a facility that is no more complex or expensive than a kitchen. While such facilities are more expensive than ordinary classrooms, they fall far below the cost of a fully-equipped science lab.

What do you then do to provide the science experiences not capable of being provided in a kitchen? After all, simulations will not do. They misrepresent the nature of science and can even deliver erroneous results. The data all come from a programmer's pencil, which cannot represent the real world and may have other flaws as well.

The answer comes from a breakthough technology: the Smart Science® education system. This system uses prerecorded real experiments to deliver the materal world to students online. For more information, see

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
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Friday, June 26, 2009

Science and History

F. W. Westaway wrote the book on Science Teaching (of that title). He concerned himself in this treatise of nearly 500 pages with every aspect of teaching science (in 1929). With respect to history, he makes a very interesting comment.

If the science teacher is lucky enough to have a history colleague whose sympathies are primarily on the side of the creative genius, whether of science or art or literature or music, his task will be comparatively easy. But there are still history teachers and history books that give prominence to such stories as those of a ruffianly baronage, of court intrigues, and of military and political adventurers. The stupendous events that have really made the world what it is are almost unknown to many of our children. The names of the great pioneers and discoverers, me things they have done, of what races they were, and how though separated by nationality each has built on the work of the rest: these are the things that history should teach. The year 1848 is mentioned in the history books as memorable for political "revolutions": how few of them mention that that was the year when Pasteur discovered the properties of asymmetrical crystals, a discovery which led to the birth of bacteriology, and thus to modern surgery, modern medicine, and other discoveries unrolling in almost endless series? Our historical perspective has been all wrong. There are still people who would place Maryborough and Napoleon, Richelieu and Palmerston, in the same rank as such mighty creative geniuses as Newton and Shakespeare, Rembrandt and Beethoven.
It's a very different view of history than what I was told during my schooling.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Westaway Comments on What Physics Is

F. W. Westaway wrote many books. The most useful of the lot may be Science Teaching. Just about every imaginable aspect of teaching science in early 20th century England is covered.

Help all the boys to acquire the art of reading. Let the old catch-words, " weigh, weigh, weigh ", give place to " read, read, read ". That weighing and measuring is the very life-blood of scientific method is, of course, true, but let the boys know all about the thing they are measuring and weighing. Too, too often, physics is treated just as if it were mathematics; a boy takes readings mechanically, settles down to arithmetic and algebra, and labels his work " physics ".

Ignoring the rather gender-biased notion that the students are all "boys," Westaway has found a true kernel of wisdom here. Science is not about weighing or performing mathematical tricks. He suggests that students read about the subject under investigation. He even says that students should, where possible, read the works of the original science investigators.

While Westaway is in favor of using students own experience to help them understand science, he recognizes the impossibility of carrying this approach through an entire school life of science. Eventually, students simply don't have the requisite experience and can't acquire the equivalent on their own or through lab work. Then, they must do the next best thing. If possible, read what the scientist responsible for the discovery said. Alternatively, find a good reporter of the work.

That's much more interesting than reading a textbook, in my opinion.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Interactive Does not Mean Experiential

Many supporters of using simulations to replace science labs point to their interactivity and equate that aspect with the simulation being "experiential." How interactive are simulations anyway? And, is being experiential the best criteria for deciding whether an activity can stand in for a science lab?

Simulations roughly divide into two types: data simulations and procedure simulations. The former focus on generating data for students to use. The latter emphasize step-by-step procedures and generally result in much less data than the data simulations do.

A very early and still popular data simulation involves the trajectories of projectile motion. Various projectiles are fired with different forces with a varying angle. Students observe an animated version of the projectile motion, and the simulation provides data for the student to use. This simulation, although rather simple, provides an excellent model of data simulations in general.

Of course, the equations for this situation are quite easy to calculate if you ignore air resistance, wind, projectile shape and size, and the like. Students have essentially unlimited ability to vary parameters and see what happens to the trajectory. Many people would consider this simulation to be interactive and experiential. But is it?

The same people will tell you that reading a book is not interactive nor experiential. Consider simplifying the simulation solely for explanative purposes. Reduce the parameters to just the launch angle and the precision of the angle to one degree. Allow a range of 0º to 90º. Those choices allow for 91 experiments. The simulation remains interactive in the same sense as it was previously.

Suppose, however, that you recorded those 91 experiments and stored them on a DVD. Now, the student interaction consists of selecting the angle from the DVD menu and watching the experiment play. The data and action remain the same, but the interactivity seems a bit diluted, and the experiential aspect is rather unclear.

Take one more step. Capture the image at the end of each experiment. That image will have all of the data and a static image of the projectile trajectory. You're only missing the animated aspect. Everything you require to understand projectile motion remains. Put each of these images on a page of a book. The student only has to look up the desired angle in the table of contents and turn to the page. Are those actions interactions?

The book contains exactly the same experimental information as the data simulation did. Yet, just about anyone would agree that reading a book is neither interactive nor experiential. Therefore, neither is the data simulation.

Meeting the demand for science education in the 21st century requires better tools than data simulations. Like books and DVDs, simulations may have their place in education, but not in substituting for lab experience.

You'll also find plenty of procedure simulations, especially in chemistry. These simulations require students to use their mouse cursor and mouse buttons to move (drag and drop) images of experimental equipment and materials around on the computer screen. In some simulations, you simply must click on the correct items in the correct order to succeed. Others require that you drag an item to the correct place, and drop it there. Some have predetermined quantities of chemicals, while others allow you to "weigh" a chemical by typing in the desired mass.

As a concrete and simple example, take the analysis of hydrates experiment done in nearly every high school. In the hands-on version, students dry and weigh a small porcelain crucible. They add the hydrate salt to the crucible and weigh again. Next, they cover the crucible, and heat it with a flame long enough to drive the water of crystallization from the salt. After allowing the crucible to cool, they carefully use crucible tongs to move it to the scale for a final weighing.

The change in mass provides a measure of the mass of water lost. The difference in mass between the dehydrated (heated) crucible and the empty one provides the mass of the dry salt. Students are given the molecular formula of the dry salt and proceed to calculate the number of molecules of water in the crystal hydrate for each molecular formula amount of salt.

With a procedure simulation, students place the cursor on the bottle of salt, click to open it, move it to the scale, and so on. In many simulations, they cannot begin until they click on a safety goggle icon indicating that they have put their safety goggles "on." All of this moving about of the computer equivalents of cardboard cutouts has little to do with science.

While scientists may indeed perform operations like these, they aren't the central activity of science. In very many cases, lab technicians perform these activities for the scientists who are engaged in posing new questions, designing new experiments, analyzing data, and preparing papers describing their results. They document the procedure sufficiently well that it may be reproduced in another lab, and that's it.

All scientists should be able to perform the basic operations of their chosen discipline, and schools should be able to graduate future lab technicians. For these people, procedures and their ability to perform them are very important. For the remainder of the students, it's all a huge waste of time. After all, how many students will graduate and find that they must know how to operate a stopcock to perform a titration?

Procedure simulations miss the point of science labs entirely. By focusing on the procedure, they obscure the real science that should be the center of the experience.

The people who promote these simulations point to the value of simulations in training airplane pilots. And that's exactly where procedure simulations have value, if they have any. If a student performs a really good procedure simulation before going into a real lab to do the same procedure, then that student is better prepared and will be more likely to succeed. The procedure simulation does not replace the actual lab, it prepares for it.

Simulations of either kind, data or procedure, should not substitute for actual labs. Data simulations may be useful for visualizations rather than for producing data. Those data are too precise to be of much use in developing a sense of the nature of science anyway. Procedure simulations may be of use in preparing students for a real lab they're about to do. Neither should be considered "experiential."

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

A Bold Initiative

I was recently informed that a large high school in a very large district has decided to transition from its current hands-on labs to Smart Science® labs. The department chair has determined that Smart Science® labs are much more effective than the usual hands-on fare.

The Smart Science® labs do include some at-home hands-on experiences blended into the overall system. They are included so that students can experience some experimental design issues not available in virtual labs, so that they can have kinesthetic learning experiences, and so that they can have their own personal experience with the care and effort required to carry out scientific investigations.

The prerecorded real experiments provided with the Smart Science® system provide a broad and thorough scientific investigation experience.

This blended combination of inexpensive, safe hands-on experiments with virtual prerecorded real experiments presages the future of science education. Expect to see more schools adopting the same program soon.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Proving Theories

F. W. Westaway's book, "Science Teaching," is full of excellent advice for science teachers and is just a pertinent today as in 1929 when it was published. Here's a nice nugget from the footnotes.
We may perform an experiment to verify a law, or to confirm the possibility of the truth of some hypothesis. But if we could "prove" theory to be "true", the theory would become identical with objective reality and cease to be "theory" entirely.
This simple prose explains why we can only disprove hypotheses and never prove them. We only "confirm the possibility of truth."

In the Smart Science® system, we have the option for teachers of presenting pre-written hypotheses or predictions to students. The students collect data from the prerecorded real experiments and/or from their hands-on experimentation and use those data to eliminate or disprove individual hypotheses or predictions.

It's quite possible that more than one hypothesis remains. Depending on the list, all may be eliminated. In any event, students are expected to defend their choices when writing their lab reports.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Some Advice on Teaching Science

Frederick W. Westaway gives lots of advice on teaching science. Regarding experiments or labs, he provides plenty as well. Here is some.
Beware of the pseudo method of discovery. "Pour H2SO4 on granulated zinc, and you will discover that hydrogen is given off "!

Beware of verification methods. "Show that ferrous ammonium sulphate contains one-seventh of its own weight of iron." This is simply asking for the evidence to be cooked.

When a boy works an experiment, keep him just enough in the dark as to the probable outcome of the experiment, just enough in the attitude of a discoverer, to leave him unprejudiced in his observations.

Do not adopt the heuristic extremist's principle that a pupil must not be permitted to take anything second hand. Life is too short.

Do not make the fatal mistake of thinking that all boys have an instinct and imagination for making discoveries, or can be made first-class workers in the laboratory. In any average science class, be satisfied with 25 per cent of α's, 50 per cent of β's, and 25 per cent of γ's, but do not stick labels on the γ's for all the world to recognize them.

Teach boys the virtue of recording all mistakes as well as successful results. Tell them that all science workers make mistakes: that that is almost the normal thing! Faraday, the most resourceful experimenter that the world has ever seen, said that he learnt far more from his mistakes than from his successes. A boy's laboratory note-book containing no mistakes is never a true record of the work he has done, and it is morally wrong to let it be presented as if it were such a record.

The pupil's notes should tell a plain tale to people who were not present when the record was made, and they should be written up in the laboratory, in ink, when the work is in progress.

In the laboratory, a teacher should have everything in readiness before a lesson is due to begin, including instructions as to the procedure to be followed in all experiments to be performed. If these instructions are given orally, they are forgotten; dictated, they take up much time; written on the blackboard, they are not permanent, and have to be written up again for a future lesson. Typed instructions answer best.

Whatever general method of teaching you adopt, do everything possible to economize time. It is bad economy — it is worse, it is sheer waste of time, to say nothing of a lack of ordinary teaching intelligence to worry beginners about, say, the difference between density and specific gravity, or " pressure at a point ", or the number of stamens in a flower.
Of course, Westaway, in 1929, had no idea that simulations would become popular 80 years later. As you read his words, you have to conclude that he would not have liked his students doing simulations in place of the real thing. Demonstrations may not allow students to do the experiments with their own hands, but at least they're real. With a good teacher, they can provide a good learning opportunity, provided that the class is not too large.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Thomas H. Huxley Speaks to Us

Frederick W. Westaway, in 1929, spoke clearly to us today about science education in his book, Science Teaching. He quotes Thomas H. Huxley, also known as "Darwin's bulldog," at length about science education. Huxley foreshadows Piaget's constructivism in 1869!
Huxley said: "It appeared to me to be plainly dictated by common sense that the teacher who wishes to lead his pupils to form a clear mental picture of the order which pervades the multiform and endlessly shifting phenomena of nature, should commence with the familiar facts of the scholar's daily experience; and that, from the firm ground of such experience, he should lead the beginner, step by step, to remoter objects and to the less readily comprehensible relations of things. I conceived that a vast amount of knowledge respecting natural phenomena and their interdependence, and even some practical experience of scientific method, could be conveyed, with all the precision of statement, which is what distinguishes science from common information. And I thought that my plan would not only yield results of value in themselves, but would facilitate the subsequent entrance of the learners into the portals of the special science."
You have to wonder why education has the continual rediscovery associated with it. If Huxley clearly enunciated this principle of founding learning on the experience of students, why did Piaget have to rediscover it?

This concept of beginning with what students already know from their experience has become the bedrock of many teachers today. Yet, it's treated with the attitude that it's something new when it was truly explained 140 years ago!

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Canon Wilson

I am privileged to be reading Science Teaching by F. W. Westaway, published in 1929. In it, he summarizes the history of science teaching and begins by dividing this subject into two eras: before and after 1867. Why pick that date? That's when Canon Wilson wrote extensively about teaching science and broke with millennia of tradition. The following quote comes from Westaway quoting Wilson.

The lecture may be very clear and good; and this will be an attractive and not difficult method of teaching, and will meet most of the requirements. It fails, however, in one. The boy is helped over all the difficulties; he is never brought face to face with nature and her problems; what cost the world centuries of thought is told him in a minute; his attention, understanding, and memory are all exercised; but the one power which the study of physical science ought preeminently to exercise, the power of bringing the mind into contact with facts, of seizing their relations, of eliminating the irrelevant by experiment and comparison, of groping after ideas and testing them by their adequacy in a word, of exercising all the active faculties which are required for an investigation in any matter these may lie dormant in the class while the most learned lecturer experiments with facility and with clearness.
How ironic to see very similar ideas being written 142 years later by the National Research Council in America's Lab Report. What Wilson is referring to is the value of experimentation in learning. In order to gain the true benefits of science education, students must confront complex and ambiguous situations with true real-world data that is not clear-cut and obvious.

"Experimenting" with equation-derived data is insufficient. It's even wasteful of time that could be spent experimenting with real-world data.

Students must a) experiment, and b) collect data from the material world. Providing a safe, efficient, and inexpensive means to this end has been the driving force behind the creation of the Smart Science® system. No other organization has put the necessary time and effort into such a creation. They all take the easy way out with cartoon-like simulations that give you the same data always. There's no imperative to collect data point by point in a simulation. It makes no sense.

To put the case very bluntly, the time reserved in a science course for laboratory experience must not be replaced by simulations. They are destructive of learning science if used in this fashion. Simulations, like any tool, must be used properly to have a positive outcome. Students have to know that the simulation they're running is not an experiment or a "lab." They must know that it's an artist's conception of certain equations that represent the current consensus of scientists and that even so, they may contain errors or "bugs."

If your data source is the real world instead of algorithms, then these problems vanish.

The Smart Science® education system blends prerecorded real experiments with safe, effective, and inexpensive hands-on experiments to provide an optimized learning outcome. No other system available today can make that claim.

© 2009 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

On Science Teachers

Teachers are both our problem and our solution. How will we resolve this conundrum and improve education dramatically? The answer is not obvious here in the United States.

Recently, we went to a very poor neighborhood where 98% of the children have free or subsidized lunches. We were invited by the science chair to present our Smart Science® system, which we are offering for free to a limited number of schools in truly poor neighborhoods. A chemistry teacher and the department chair had seen our system and were very enthusiastic about it.

About a dozen science teachers showed up for the meeting and demonstration. They were going to see the system that would ordinarily cost their school thousands of dollars annually, the system that is being used by most online organizations already and by a growing number of traditional schools. This is the only complete online system to deliver an online science lab that meets the definition and all goals of America's Lab Report.

Sadly, what happened was too predictable. A few teachers (three as I recall) were very enthusiastic and couldn't wait to begin using it. The bulk of the teachers were unreadable. Several teachers, however, began to pick at minor issues while suggesting that the students would find this system difficult to use for one reason or another.

Well, tens of thousands of students of all learning and ability levels have already used the system successfully. The user interface and help materials have been honed over the ten years that this system has been in use.

Clearly, the teachers themselves have trepidations regarding the use of technology. That's the teacher part of the problem. You'd expect science teachers to be very accepting of technology.

However, the three teachers who were enthusiastic demonstrate the teacher part of the solution. Without teachers, the technology would not be accessible to most students as a learning tool.

Teachers who are willing to try new ideas and evaluate them on their actual in-class performance are the ones that help education move forward. Then, there are those teachers who are acting as gatekeepers, barring new ideas from their classrooms and prejudging them based on their own subjective evaluation, usually quite incomplete.

We have a crisis in education now. In California, the state is loosening class sizes and allowing them to rise to 41 students. Our teachers deserve better! Yet, such classroom overloading can even be ameliorated with proper application of technology. I hope that it's obvious that improper use of technology will likely exacerbate the problem instead.

Realize that, if forced to use new ideas, teachers have the means to guarantee failure in their own classrooms, fulfilling their prophecies of doom. For this reason, we must have teachers accept the new ideas before asking them to use them.

I know that the Smart Science® system is not a panacea for education. Yet, it does provide a unique ability to allow students to experience real science experiments and to perform labs as prescribed by the sages at the National Research Council in perfect safety and at very low cost, sometimes as little as as 20 cents per lab per student working individually. These are complete lab experiences with many experiments, pre-lab and post-lab assessments, extensive support materials, and online lab reports.

How do we get resistant teachers to change their attitudes? Until we do, we'll be stuck with 19th century education. We should have a positive and accepting means of successfully encouraging otherwise recalcitrant teachers to use new ideas, to give them a truly fair chance. Then, all teachers would become part of the solution and none would be part of the problem.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Gov Dumps Science

Last month, a news article said that Governor Schwartzenneger planned to drop the high school graduation requirements in California from two science courses to one. He was responding to the current huge budget deficit in the state.

At at time when we must have more college graduates and more people trained in science and engineering, this response is exactly backward. Many other states have set the number of science courses required for high school graduation to three!

Why choose science? How will reducing science graduation requirements save money while reducing English or math will not?

Two factors seem to be operating here, and it's not possible to tell from the news which is primary in the Governor's decision. Science courses, unlike the other core courses, have an extra cost component in their laboratory work. The cost of supplies and equipment, even after severe cuts, remains at around $7 per pupil. Further expenses come from hazardous waste disposal, insurance costs, laboratory space maintenance, and teacher time lost to lab preparation and clean up.

The other potential cost comes from teacher certification. Certified science teachers have become rare, especially in physical sciences. Many schools have to pay more to get certified science teachers; other schools must provide waivers to allow uncertified teachers to run these classes.

The truly unfortunate part of the Governor's plan is that alternatives exist that save money and improve science education at the same time.

Just imagine that half of the expensive, dangerous, and ineffective hands-on lab experiences in a high school science course were replaced with low-cost, save, and highly effective laboratory experiences. Imagine that the cost is just a few dollars per student. With online preliminary (formative) and subsequent (summative) assessments added, administrators and teachers would be able to track student performance and provide accountability.

You don't have to imagine all of these ideas. They exist today in the Smart Science® education system; see

The Smart Science® system is the only one to meet the definition and all goals of America's Lab Report. Curricula using this system as the primary lab experience have passed the College Board's AP audit for all three AP laboratory sciences. Yes, full approval, even today.

It's a shame that the Governor and his advisers don't consider alternatives before floating such draconian proposals. Write to him today!

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

UC a-g Requirements

In California, the University of California has mandated some special requirements for high school students who'd like their high school transcripts to be accepted for admission to any college or university in the University of California system.

Mostly, these requirements seem reasonable. They keep standards up.

Then, there's requirement "d." It covers laboratory science and makes the following statement. They say that a qualifying course must:
include hands-on scientific activities that are directly related to and support the other classwork, and that involve inquiry, observation, analysis, and write-up. These hands-on activities should account for at least 20% of class time, and should be itemized and described in the course description.
In case online schools miss the point, they restate it as follows:
Online courses may be approved for credit toward the "d" requirement if they meet all the guidelines outlined above, including a supervised hands-on laboratory component comprising at least 20% of the course (e.g., UCCP courses).
I see no explanation or rationale for these statements. In fact, they have the common problem that they state means rather than ends. Therefore, a rationale would be difficult to defend.

Contrast the statements in America's Lab Report. The National Research Council wisely added a parenthetical option.
Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.
Later, they point out that only laboratories, as defined, provide opportunities for students to develop an understanding of the "complexity and ambiguity of empirical work." These experiences also promote a greater understanding of the nature of science and help students develop scientific reasoning skills.

America's Lab Report also points out that, for most American students, the science laboratory experience is "poor." So, why does the UC promote the continuing use of poor experiences for students in order to enter their institutions? There's nothing in the oversight of science courses that prevents the lab experiences from being the usual "poor." Instead, there's just the outdated requirement that all lab experiences be "hands-on."

From this requirement, we can deduce that a student who puts remote monitoring equipment in a volcano and then records and analyzes the data from it would not qualify. No, the student would be forced to be physically present at the volcano site and take all data manually right there.

With cruelly tight school budgets, California should be seeking ways to provide excellent science laboratory experience without the high costs of traditional science labs. At the same time, the UC should be doing what it can to ensure that student science lab experiences are better than "poor."

It's time to leave behind the 19th century experimental experiences that most students must endure. We have great tools available today that can improve learning and allow for accountability. I'm not speaking of the fake science of simulations. Simulations belong in the same category as videos and demonstrations. They can help students to visualize concepts. They don't provide an adequate science experience.

Although it predates America's Lab Report, the Smart Science® education system follows its guidelines and is the only online science lab system yet to do so.

California can help its schools save money and improve science education at the same time by using this remarkable patented technology in its schools. At least, the UC should get out of the way and allow high-quality innovations such as this one to be used in schools.

© 2009 by Smart Science Education Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Failing Economy and Education

Our economy is a disaster. Education has been a problem for a long time in many areas due to budget problems. Physical plants are deteriorating. Class sizes have increased. Teacher salaries have stalled making recruiting difficult, and that's really unfortunate because the one factor that has been proven to make a difference in learning is the teacher.

Good teachers create learning. However, you can overwhelm even the best teachers if you allow class sizes to expand and the environment to fall apart. Budget shortfalls continue to cause these effects.

We can do one thing to help. We can find innovative ways to support our great teachers.

The Smart Science® system helps in many ways. It allows teachers to provide great science experiences at low cost, without safety problems, without set up and clean up, and in larger groups than would be otherwise possible.

Others will argue that you can do that with any simulation. Not so! Simulations do not provide great science experiences — ever. Check out America's Lab Report for the truth about simulations.

The continuing education problems and the current economic crisis provide a great opportunity to move education into the 21st century. We must harness our wonderful American inventiveness and entrepreneurship to change education now.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama and Education Innovation

The following quotes are from Obama's site.

"We are a people of boundless industry and ingenuity. We are innovators and entrepreneurs and have the most dedicated and productive workers in the world."
"To make America, and our children, a success in this new global economy, we will build 21st century classrooms, labs, and libraries."
The problem with these two quotes is that they are from unrelated portions of the site. The Obama team has yet to combine these sentiments into one strategy for education. Also, nowhere is the concept of 21st century classrooms, labs, and libraries to be found. A brand-new science lab looks much like those of the 19th century except for cosmetics. Similarly, new libraries are bookshelves with some computer terminals added. Neither will be the norm by middle of this century.

Let us send forth the call now for "boundless industry and ingenuity" to be applied to education. Smart Boards aren't enough. We must have real changes if we're to educate the current generation of students and have a great citizenry. The government should take a lead in supporting education entrepreneurship because no one else will.

© 2009 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.netFollow this author on ETC Journal.