Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Take a Closer Look at Science Education

With Jerry Brown taking over as governor of California and Mayor Bloomberg appointing Cathleen Black as chancellor of New York City schools, the time is right to review what's happening in science education in these two very large school markets. New York City has over 1,000,000 students in its schools, about 1/3 in high school, and the California high school population is estimated at a bit over 2,000,000.

In addition, Texas, no lightweight in education, has begun its RSSM (Request for Supplemental Science Materials), which seeks to certify 100% web-delivered materials for all of the high school science students in the state. Every Texas student must take four years of science, so all 1.3 million high school students are covered by this new requirement.

With so many articles bemoaning our nation's science education, what is to be done? New national science curriculum standards are being readied right now as is a national education technology plan. Neither of these will have substantial impact on the quality of science education. They may help a bit around the edges. Textbook manufacturers and others who create curricular materials will find their work a bit easier if they can begin with a single set of standards instead of 51. Technology does have great promise, but implementation has its problems.

I'm going to digress from my usual approach of leaving my business out entirely or leaving any commercial comment until the end because the situation is so dire. We've dropped from the first-place science education country in the world to somewhere in double digits depending on which data you use.

You cannot ignore the fact that all of the paths to success in science education that are being tried have been tried before. Why should they succeed now?

Some say that science education is being hamstrung by poor math and language arts skills and seek to improve science education by focusing on those areas. That idea appears logical but puts the cart before the horse. After all, science can be taught without complex language or advanced math skills. It's just not the way people usually teach it. Besides, science can be the trigger to engaging students in learning better math and language arts skills.

I created Smart Science® education just to deal with these issues. I looked at highly rated schools and found their science programs often lacking in basic science understanding. They did quite well in producing students who have memorized the materials: words, formulas, and procedures. But, their students did not understand the nature of science and often lacked decent scientific thinking skills.

My analysis indicated that these students simply did not have enough true science investigation (lab) time. Oh, they may have had plenty of science labs, but those labs were either verification labs (answer told to them ahead of time) or technique labs (focused on learning a particular technique). Students did not go into the lab wondering what they'd find.

Even in cases of investigation, the time and availability of materials and apparatus prevented a complete investigation. In addition, many great labs were being eliminated due to new safety requirements and increasingly tight budgets.

I chose to attack our science education failings right at the lab level. Anyone can provide memorization classes and create memorization software to aid in that course of action. However, creating great science labs is not so easy. You must have a number of factors such as:

1. Low cost, or the labs won't be used in most schools.
2. An unknown outcome of the experiments
3. Enough experiments to allow exploration and discovery
4. Data from the material world with systematic and random errors so students learn the nature of science.
5. Students collecting their own individual data point by point while exercising their own care and judgment to extend their understanding of the nature of science.
6. Data analysis made on students' own data to engage students by providing data ownership.
7. Certainty of experiment operation so that entire periods aren't wasted with totally failed experiments.

These criteria can only be fulfilled with the support of technology. Consider a couple of technologies that are being promoted to improve science education, simulations and probeware.

Science animated simulations use a formula to produce data for students to study. In general, they do not produce a data table of individual data points. These simulations violate criteria 4, 5, and 6 above. Using a simulation to mimic a true science lab tends to leave a very inaccurate impression of science in the minds of students: precise and easy. Science is just the opposite. Teachers should reserve simulations for understanding content and not attempt to use them to replace labs, where the nature of science is one of the major outcomes sought.

Probeware provides an efficient way to collect data from the material world. However, this approach violates criterion 5 above and may run into criterion 7 due to failure of the experiment or of the electronics. It also does not truly meet criterion 1, low cost. Probeware should only be used in advanced classes where students have already mastered the concepts of the nature of science to a reasonable degree. Unfortunately, even in advanced classes, the students often enter without having had the opportunity to master those concepts.

Only Smart Science® education, with its patented approach, meets all of the listed goals.

1. In large school districts, purchasing contracts allow students to do entire labs of many experiments for on the order of 25 cents per lab.
2. The labs do not disclose the outcome before the experiments are performed.
3. Each lab has a number of experiments, sometimes more than twenty, to allow a full investigation.
4. All labs use filmed real experiments as the source of data so students get a true feeling for real data with the same sorts of errors they'd get themselves.
5. Each student must collect individual data and cannot simply copy someone else's data; their own care and judgment affect the results.
6. Students analyze their own data; they even determine how much data to take.
7. Prerecorded experiments ensure success.

There's simply no other system for science investigation that matches Smart Science® education.

The above does not preclude traditional hands-on experiments. Rather, it embraces them. Many Smart Science® labs have a hands-on component so that students can have a kinesthetic experience and have the opportunity for experimental design beyond that available in prerecorded experiments.

Furthermore, Smart Science® labs are suitable for homework. Students can do a hands-on lab in school and then go home and expand that experience enormously with the platform-independent, 100% web-delivered Smart Science® system.

We must improve science education dramatically. All of the paths being trod today are old ones being revisited except for this one. The Smart Science® approach as been adopted from very successful programs in the past. These programs were successful in outcomes but were incapable of scaling to the entire population because of their high cost and difficult training requirements for teachers.

Those impediments can now be overcome with technology. The patented technology of Smart Science® education does exactly that.

Other measures must also be taken to succeed. For example, we must recruit the best possible science teachers and provide them with excellent tools for classroom use. Yet, these measures will take time. Implementing Smart Science® education can be done immediately so that its benefits can begin to be felt today.

The Smart Science® technology currently has implementations for grades 6-13. We have designs to add grades 1-5 so that this remarkable technology be used throughout every student's education beginning at first grade and continuing through the first year of college. We also can expand its capabilities to augment the lab experience beyond the freshman year of college.

Smart Science® education can revolutionize science education.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Educational Software Cooperative

Sometimes something just makes sense.

People who write software for education have a large hill to climb, especially if they're doing it alone or in a small group.

After all, how many people can write great software, understand the pedagogical aspects of good educational software, run a business, do market research, perform marketing, make sales calls and close sales, design web sites, establish marketing channels, write contracts, negotiate deals, perform bookkeeping, handle all tax filings, and so on?  What is the minimum number of people required to do all of these functions well?

If you don't have these skills and don't have associates who can fill in the blanks, then you'd better have enough money to hire those who do -- or have a great support group.

The Educational Software Cooperative with a blog at http://educationalsoftware.blogspot.com/ is just such an organization.  Members include developers, publishers, distributors, and users of educational software.  While anyone can participate in the group on its public forum, the real advantages stem from its members-only forum.  That's where Al Harberg hosts his world-renowned ESC Marketing Book Club.  Each month, Al selects a book on marketing.  He provides excellent summaries of the topics in each chapter, a sort of "Reader's Digest" of great marketing books.  Members comment on their perspectives of the current topics.

You cannot help but gain great understanding of marketing educational software this way because Al goes out of this way to interpret the books specifically for educational software developers.

Each year, the ESC presents an award for Outstanding Achievement in Educational Software.  The submission rules are being revised for the 2011 award, and the 2010 award will be announced soon.

I just makes sense for anyone who's involved in educational software in any capacity to join this stellar group of dedicated professionals.  The membership fee is very modest; you can't lose.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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Saturday, July 03, 2010

What is Science?

For those educators out there, please understand that I know that doing science and doing science education are very different. In many ways, the latter is more difficult than the former.
I'll quote a person whom I met and spent some time listening to. I only know him though his works, although my time watching and listening to him at Caltech brings the written transcripts of his words to life in my mind.

Richard Feynman, speaking to an NSTA meeting, said, "In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself." You can find his complete transcript at http://www.fotuva.org/feynman/what_is_science.html.

I've found this concept very difficult to explain to people, even those who teach science. I happen to believe very strongly that understanding this difference, really understanding it with all of its implications, is critical to teaching science.

If you do not understand the difference, you can readily fall into the trap of teaching the tools of science and not teaching any science at all. The tools of science are easier to teach and to test for than is science.

So, when you teach students how to do a chemistry lab procedure, you're teaching a tool of science and not teaching science. When students learn the phases of mitosis, they've learned no science at all. Learning that planets and moons travel in elliptical orbits is not learning science -- unless you figured that out all by yourself.

How do you know when you've learned some science? Feynman has a test you can apply. Like all tests, it's not absolutely perfect, but it will work when words are involved, especially for young children. Here's his test.

Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.
This is vintage Feynman, clever and succinct.

However, this idea will not completely explain science to those who don't really understand it. Some will insist, for example, that science is observation. Like words and procedures, observation is an important tool of science. But observation is not science. Here's Feynman again.
Suppose I were told to observe, to make a list, to write down, to do this, to look, and when I wrote my list down, it was filed with 130 other lists in the back of a notebook. I would learn that the result of observation is relatively dull, that nothing much comes of it.
It's not enough to observe and record. You have also to think. In addition, you must realize that many observations do not lead to new ideas.Too often, science classes force students to make lists, to observe, without thinking. My son's high biology teacher had students fill a notebook with tree leaves. And that was the end of the exercise.

Frequently, teachers have their students perform some activity and make a record. Then, they take students figuratively by the hand and show them how these observations lead to some wonderful conclusion about science. Everyone says, "Wow. That's wonderful." This approach leads students to believe that every observation leads to science. Not so.

To do science, you must engage your mind scientifically, and you must be patient. To teach science, you must help students learn how to engage their minds scientifically and to be patient. Few science classes provide these insights to students, except possibly as just words. Fewer give many real opportunities to learn these concepts by the work the students do.

Yes, I know that there's not enough time, not enough money for equipment, etc. It's hard enough to get students just to listen and to learn the tools of science (words, formulas, procedures, etc.). But that attitude (which is correct as far as it goes) misses the real point. Once students begins to understand science, they become engaged. Then, the learning of the tools becomes easier and sticks better in their minds.

It's like activation energy. It's a tough push up the steep hill initially, much tougher than the gentle rolling hills of learning tools. But, once you get to the top, everything goes forward much better and faster.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

iPad and Science Education

The noise over the iPad is deafening.  Steve Jobs and Apple have really created a huge stir and executed a major marketing coup.  However, what is there behind all of the hoopla for science education in ordinary classrooms?

Take the iPad apart one feature at a time.

Price: At $499 for the minimum configuration, it's more costly than some laptops and many netbooks.  Yet, it delivers less performance.

User Interface: You have to love the user interface, which blows away the others for many applications.  On the other hand, the screen keyboard won't be good for extensive typing, the kind that many teachers assign to their students.

Ports: The few ports make it harder to use this platform with the popular probeware.  I'm sure that Jobs & Co. did not plan the iPad for use in school science labs.  My personal opinion, backed up by some studies, is that probeware gets in the way of learning science by focusing on procedure and automating data collection.  Although many like this approach, I think that it's exactly backward.  You should automate the procedure and focus on data collection and analysis.

 Software Support: The iPad does not support either Flash or Java.  While I have little use for Flash, which infects too many web sites with annoying animations, many educators have found use for Flash animations that help explain difficult science concepts and provide quality visualizations for students.  These students won't be able to view them on their iPads.

The situation with Java really bothers me.  Java provides much more capability than Flash with its limited Actionscript scripting language.  You can find some excellent science learning software written in Java because of its multi-platform capability and the fact that you can write serious software with it.  One example, of course, is my own Smart Science® education system.

Interaction with Screen: For data collection from the screen, you might think that liberation from the mouse would be a good thing.  However, the finger tip has two serious problems as a data collection device.  It's big compared to the pixels on the screen.  You cannot position your fingertip to within a pixel.  Then, even if you could, your finger is opaque.  You cannot see where you're pointing.

Although the touchscreen on the iPad is wonderful for doing many things and for a gesture interface, it fails completely when you try to collect data by pointing at a specific pixel.

The bottom line here goes something like this:  The iPad is a wonderful technological advance but is not ready for mainstream science classrooms.  It costs too much for what it brings to those classes and lacks some really important features.

I do believe that someday, maybe sooner that we expect, tablet computers will be found in the hands of every student in many of our K-12 classes.  The things that will be done in support of learning will be truly extraordinary.  It's not the little red schoolhouse anymore.  And this learning will be available regardless of economic circumstance.  No longer will too many of our young people be denied a great education based on where they are growing up.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Mars Rovers and Science Education

What does the Mars Rover program have to do with science education -- aside from studying the Mars Rover program?

It makes a useful analogy to science labs in classrooms around the world. That may seem a bit far fetched. As you read this analogy, don't assume it's crazy. Read to the end before passing judgment. You may be surprised at how apt the analogy is.

When NASA designed the Mars Rover program, it had a number of goals and restraints. Assume that it could consider just about any approach and then had to adapt to the goals and restraints, a brainstorming session. What were the range of options available?

At one extreme would be no trip to Mars. At the other extreme would be a manned trip to Mars. In between is the idea of a remote robotic explorer.

At one point during your brainstorming session, a software developer jumps up and proclaims that you can have a software program that includes all known information about Mars. This program can then simulate the data that a trip to Mars, manned or unmanned, might produce. The program not only could produce data but even could put together simulated images of the Martian surface. Just look at the benefis.
  • low cost (compared to a Martian trip)
  • complete safety (no astronauts at risk)
  • short time (writing software instead of building equipment and sending it to Mars)
At another point, a rugged test pilot stands up and says that the only way to explore Mars is in person. Simulations are for wusses and robots are for geeks. Lots of people like this idea, but it has some problems.
  • very high cost (compared to a robotic mission)
  • extreme danger (never been done before, may not be able to return, etc.)
  • very long time horizon (years of preparation, very lengthy trip)
When discussing the options, the simulation idea comes in for some criticism. The scientists tell the software developer that simulations won't generate any real science. They may look real, but they certainly will not match what the actual science will be on Mars. How can they publish papers on Mars using investigations of a simulation?

The scientists carefully explain that computer science is not science in the usual sense. It's actually an engineering discipline that produces tools used by scientists and by society.

In the end, of course, the robotic mission wins out as the least expensive real science option for exploring Mars. The scientists have a number of options regarding how to handle the data from the mission. It could be streamed live continually (sort of), or it could be stored on the rovers and sent later. The received data could be stored in a database and available for retrieval at any time in the future, sort of prerecorded for use by many different people at many different times.

While bringing NASA into this discussion does exaggerate the situation, it also shines a very bright light on how best to teach science, especially the use of science labs. In today's discussions of science labs in science courses, you'll find two extremes: those who insist on 100% hands-on labs and those who, with equal vehemence, insist on using simulations instead.

Fortunately, some are finding middle ground. At MIT, they're working on the iLabs project, which allows real-time remote robotic experimentation. Unfortunately, these labs are mostly engineering labs, and the likelihood of covering a reasonable range of science labs with this technology is very remote at this time.

The fact that all Mars Rover data are stored and usable by many scientists in many locations opens up a different approach: prerecorded real experiments. Images, videos, data, and other information can be stored for retrieval by students. The science certainly is as real as hands-on and remote robotics approaches.

The pedagogy depends on the software and the instructors. People who write the software and create the experiment videos cannot also create the instructors. They can only provide software that's easy to use and instructions for correct usage. Better science teachers know how to incorporate science lab experiences into their classes.

Data collection forms a very important aspect of the science lab experience. Data should not be precollected or automatically collected. Just as in a science lab, students should take their own individual data point by point. Each point represents not just the experiment but also student care and judgment, an important factor in understanding the nature of empirical data.

Each video should tell a story and provide means for collecting experimental data. If the video itself doesn't tell enough of the story, then the lab units should be supplemented with text, diagrams, animations, and videos that complete the story: tell the students enough so that they truly understand the details of the experiment.

Finally, sufficient supporting materials should be provided so that both students and teachers are able to succeed. This approach and list form the basis for Smart Science® education, a system of more than 150 lab units for use in science courses from grades 6 through college.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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Hands-On Labs are Not the Answer

From the beginning of science labs in education in the mid-1800s, they've been hands-on labs. Until the latter half of the 20th century, the only other sort of lab was the paper-and-pencil lab. Some of you may not have encountered these desktop labs.

In a paper-and-pencil lab, the instructor hands out copies of laboratory "data," which may have been created from equations and not taken from real experiments. Students then fill in provided tables with the data and calculations based on that data. Finally, they answer questions about the results.

What are the benefits of paper-and-pencil labs?
  • low cost
  • minimal time required
  • high safety
  • lab technique does not affect results
What are the problems with paper-and-pencil labs?
  • no experimental design
  • likely to have unreal data
  • no kinesthetic experience
  • no visual experience
  • data not dependent on student technique
  • data not dependent of student judgment
I'm sure that you can add to these lists. You'll note that these features, except for lack of visual experience, match those of computer laboratory simulations being hawked by a wide variety of vendors, instructors, and amateur scientists. With simulations, the visual experience is generally poor, being limited to cartoon-like animations.

With so many defects in these labs, whether pencil-and-paper or simulations, you can see why so many educators have pushed back very hard to the point where they insist that only hands-on labs can be appropriate for science education. It's a natural reaction by those appalled by the large infusion of simulations into the laboratory part of many science curricula.

However, these hands-on purists are throwing out the baby with the bath water. By denying any lab but a hands-on lab, they're making advances in science education difficult and limiting their student experiences severely.

They should be searching for means to make new advances in technology available in science education. The goals must include the following.
  • lower cost of true science lab learning experiences
  • improve safety of science lab experiences
  • expand range of science lab experiences available to students
  • use student class and homework time more efficiently
  • provide exposure to the nature of science and all that it implies
Hands-on labs can be great learning experiences. Those that extend over many periods and involve iterative redesign and exploration can open up new vistas in students' imaginations. Instructors should not give these up entirely. However, recognize that such experiences are time-consuming and expensive. Usually, they require that students work in groups, and some in any group may opt out of the experience, just tagging along for the ride.

On the other hand, many hands-on labs are merely exercises in lab technique. How many students will find pipetting techniques valuable in the future? Other hands-on labs have been structured as "verification" labs, a class of labs that was railed against by F. W. Westaway nearly a century ago and by Carl Sagan much more recently. Students know all of the science and the numerical result expected before entering the lab. They are simply to verify this information.

Technique and verification labs do not teach science. They are a waste of time and money. Worse, they give students the impression that science is dull and uninspiring.

What's to be done? One way to view the options is to look at the Mars Rover program. It's real science, and not science pedagogy. So, you must be careful about drawing too close of an analogy. I'll be posting more on this analogy soon.

© 2010 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A. www.smartscience.net
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