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the workshop








Starting in 1983 with the invention of the "microcomputer-based laboratory" (MBL) at TERC, and its commercialization by IBM and Texas Instruments for K-12 and higher education, real value has been demonstrated in the educational process of learning science by doing scientific inquiry collecting data from the environment and real-time graphing of results for learning purposes and subsequent analysis. Much of this work involved students learning concepts in classical kinematics using a motion probe and in dynamics using a force detector. But so much more is possible.

The educational vision is a powerful one--learners and their teacher would have a sandbox available of probes and sensors that would enable measurement of a broad range of physical properties of the environment. Such capabilities would enable them to instrument the environments around them and begin to conduct inquiries, for example, that examine how these interacting, measurable variables may provide recording that could be utilized in models of cause and effect for understanding how the world functions. Whereas now science students often go through the motions in "canned labs" of measuring data parameters in pre-defined studies with known outcomes, students could examine exciting and contemporary topics throughout biology, chemistry, physics, earth and environmental science and other disciplines that bring science and mathematics to life through inquiry. How does water chemistry work? What affects water quality? What are the environmental impacts of CO2 emissions? Air pollution indicators? Ozone depletion? And so on.

Over the past five years, this paradigm has accelerated with the increasing availability of low-cost ubiquitous computers, such as those using the Palm OS (from Palm, Handspring, Sony and other manufacturers) and WinCE (from Compaq, HP and others), and their use coupled with sensors and probes from such companies as Imagiworks, Vernier, Pasco, and Logal's Video MBL or VMBL (illustrating videos of MBL synchronized with actual data), for science education at the pre-college and college level. These probes, which plug into the handheld devices mentioned, allow for capture of data from the environment such as temperature, motion, light, heat, sound, CO2, and dissolved oxygen. Probes have become far easier to use, far more accurate, far cheaper, and so much more portable. They have been powerfully used to provide physical data records that give meaning to mathematical graphing, rate of change, decimals and other fundamental conceptions. Such developments are more commonly used in the US, England, and the Dutch national curriculum, but clearly have global applications and future marketplaces.

As is commonly noted, effective science as well as science learning is built on measuring parameters of the world around you, reflecting on what these data mean, and communicating what one is learning to others according to the standards of scientific communication (such as graphs constructed from collected data in reports). The power of coupling IT with measurement processes is that measurement, reflection, and communication may be readily supported and facilitated.

A great deal of opportunity exists to enhance the measurement processes involving translation and interaction between the physical and symbolic worlds. One group that has been making rapid strides in the research world on these issues is the Concord Consortium in Massachusetts, a non-profit research organization that has been collaborating with this project's PI, Roy Pea, over the past four years. They call their work on these issues "SmartProbes"--which combine in prototypes a sensor, analog-to-digital conversion, a microcontroller, memory for saving its calibration, serial communication, and power-management circuitry all into a small package. Their aim is to increase the ease of use and reduce errors and failures, and the features they have worked on include:

  • Calibration. Once calibrated, a SmartProbe should remember its calibration. Using the calibration a SmartProbe could report back measured data in calibrated physical units.
  • Power management. SmartProbes should use as little power as possible and, whenever possible, eliminate the need for a battery by getting all necessary power from the computer's serial interface.
  • On/off. A SmartProbe should not have an on-off switch, thereby eliminating another source of potential confusion in the field. Whenever an active serial interface connection is detected, it should automatically turn itself on.
  • Standard I/O. SmartProbes should use a standard three-wire RS-232 serial communication protocol so that they can be connected to the widest range of computing hardware.
  • Memory. Advanced SmartProbes might include a power source and have the capability of recording data while disconnected from the computer.
  • Standard communications. We need to develop a communication protocol for SmartProbes to enable code, commands and data to be passed between the computer and the probe.