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
- 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
- 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.