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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