Archived — À la "cart": Computers in the science lab

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Bob Sanders
Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate Institute
Scarborough, Ontario

Bob Sanders loves science and loves working with students. Recognizing that hands-on lab work catches learners' interest, he makes extensive use of investigative science projects to teach basic scientific knowledge and instil a love of the subject.

About 10 years ago, he realized developments in computer technology held great potential for science teachers. Computers allow for exciting learning situations that would otherwise be too expensive and time-consuming to set up in an ordinary high school. His innovative mobile computer carts are an affordable, practical tool for integrating technology into any school and curriculum.

Rolling in new technology

I would describe myself as a traditional teacher, one who tries to find a balance between hands-on teaching and hands-on learning. Both have their place in my classroom, but I tend to move as the semester progresses from teacher-directed lessons, using lectures and traditional tools such as the blackboard, overheads and audio-visual aids, to teacher-assisted lessons, when I act as a resource to the students' learning.

I aim for the same progression from traditional lab activities to those using newer technologies. Standard lab work gets a class started on a topic, but lab interface technology that uses probes to collect data values, reaction animations that let students construct molecules on the screen, along with other software allow the students to concentrate on the investigative science quickly and easily.

There are a couple of factors to consider when bringing computers into the science lab. The first is cost and budgeting.

In 1992, we decided as a department to devote a large portion (40 percent) of our budget to acquiring new technologies for the classroom rather than buying textbooks. Computers do not take the place of textbooks; students still need print materials to provide them with a knowledge base, a ready resource to follow up on activities in the class. Nevertheless, we decided to keep using the textbooks we already had in order to get some new technology into our classrooms.

With this new emphasis on technology in mind, about four years ago we visited a local school that was being rebuilt. The Science Department Head there was taking advantage of the opportunity to incorporate computers into two of the new science labs, to create the kind of environment that would encourage collaborative learning. He planned to have eight computer stations, one at each laboratory bench, for groups of three or four students to work on together.

This set-up was obviously going to be quite expensive. My colleagues and I quickly realized that we could not duplicate it at our school, so we came up with the idea of mobile computer carts as the next best thing. It has proved to be a very affordable alternative to full-scale computer rooms that still brings the benefits of integrating computer technologies and scientific education software into the curriculum. We started with just one computer station on a movable cart in 1994 and now have eight.

Each workstation consists of a standing-height cart with a Macintosh LC575 and a Vernier lab interface that accepts data such as temperature, pH, or pressure from lab probes and translates them into a digital form for the computer. The school bought the machines second-hand from CPUsed in Toronto, which sells used Macintosh computers and peripherals. (A sister company, CPUsed, handles used PC-platform computers.) We purchased the second-hand LC575s for a few reasons:

  • Scarborough schools have had the more "user-friendly" Macs since the mid-1980s when the complexities of DOS-based machines restricted their use to trained teachers and students in computer classes. Even with the advent of Windows, the Macintosh platform continues to provide a more stable environment, requiring less specialized knowledge to install and set up software, and one that is far less susceptible to computer viruses and system crashes.
  • The Macintosh LC575is an all-in-one unit, with the monitor integrated with the CPU. In our mobile situation, the fewer pieces on a cart, the better!
  • The 68040 processor was the workhorse of the Macintosh family in the early 90s (similar to the 486 in the PC world). Almost all software we previewed was available in both Windows and Mac format. Currently most science software comes on hybrid CD-ROMs. Some recent releases of software requiring the Mac PowerPC processor (similar to the Pentium) are incompatible with our LC575s.

Security cables fasten the equipment to the carts so teachers can safely wheel them from room to room. The keyboard is on a pull-out shelf set a few inches higher than the lab benches. For some students, it is a little too high for comfortable typing, but keeps the keyboard above most laboratory spills. Four of the carts also carry ink-jet printers and A-B switch boxes with six-metre printer cables to connect to a printer-less cart for printing. It is a primitive network, but it works. (An added benefit of this system is that it requires the students to coordinate their printing jobs.)

Teachers sign out the carts and move them from class to class just like the TV/VCR carts. They may sign out one computer at time, or two, three, or even all eight, depending on their needs.

The cost (as of 1996) of each of our eight mobile stations breaks down as follows:

Macintosh LC575 (used) $1200
Standing height cart $200
Vernier lab interface $500
Shared printer $200
Shared software $750
Laboratory probes $500
Total per station $3350
Total for eight stations $26 800

We maintain that a full-scale computer room of 24 to 28 computers is not appropriate for science. (Comparable cost would be $75 000 to $90 000.) The computer is a tool to be used in the science lab. Relegating them to a separate facility prohibits student use of the technology as a companion to their science lab work. Eight stations is not a magic number, but we have found it promotes student group work in the laboratory for class sizes of 24 to 32 students. Also, since our science labs are up to 30 years old, they are not large enough to accommodate additional computer carts without them becoming a safety hazard.

We could have installed these computers on existing lab benches in one of our eight labs, and rotated our 50 science classes through on a room exchange basis. We decided on the mobile computer option for several reasons.

  • A special lab would again elevate the status of the computer beyond that of just another lab tool in the eyes of the students.
  • Displacing classes from any room is inconvenient.
  • No more than one class could use computers at a time and some activities need only one, two or three computers in the lab at a time.
  • Bringing the technology to each of the labs provides more flexibility and opportunities for spontaneous use than would a formal sign-up in a special room.

This brings me to the second consideration of integrating computers into science labs. Most schools fortunate enough to have full computer rooms tend to reserve them for computer and business courses, in which the computer itself is the lesson. They run standard, easily obtained business, word-processing or spreadsheet programs. In science and other areas, the computer is not the lesson. Consequently, the market for educational scientific software is small, and fewer software companies invest the time and money to create these programs. In addition, few teachers know how to make the best use of these programs in a science course because, along with the scarcity of the programs, there is limited access to training.

The programs are expensive. With our limited budget, I cannot really afford to make a purchasing mistake. We have found Tangent Scientific in St. Catharines, Ontario, to be a good supplier of a wide range of educational scientific software in all fields of science — biology, chemistry and physics — offering excellent customer support. Tangent's library of available titles has expanded quite dramatically over the past few years, and prices have been dropping as the market for science software expands. All the titles I have previewed from them are very good quality. You can reach Tangent by phone (1-800-363-2908) or by email. You may also wish to visit the firm's website. When I do find a piece of software that I think would be useful, I ask for an evaluation copy and try it out. My colleagues who teach physics and biology play around with the programs too. If it seems to be something we can use, we usually just buy one copy at first, install it on one computer and use it to design an independent study project — Grade 12 and OAC (Ontario Academic Credit) semester-long research projects.

For example, the project might call for the students to investigate an organic chemical reaction. The students could create the molecules with a modelling program, showing all the chemical bonds in the correct orientation, and then animate the reaction using slide show software. Next, they could research everyday uses of the compounds, and then put it all together into a presentation either on paper or on video.

We buy more copies of the programs that pass this informal testing process. This allows us to install the program on additional computers. At the beginning, we installed only the most heavily used programs on all eight machines because of the high cost of site licences.

As a result, each of our workstations had a different combination of programs. In some cases, we had only single copies for independent study use. For other titles we may have had four. Over the years, though, we gradually expanded the licensing so that now most of the software is common to all computer stations. To help everyone remember which computers have which programs, the machines are colour-coded. Each Mac has a 10-cm-wide, colour vinyl sticker on each side, and a smaller one on the front so that people can identify it from any angle. The desktop screens are also customized to the same colour. Our colour scheme is white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet and black, a modified version of the colours in the spectrum. Teachers are aware of the programs available on each Mac by colour.

The computers are not networked to a central server, but are instead stand-alone computers with their own hard drives. Some experimental work occurs over several lab periods, and students store their work in progress on a computer. They then need to work with the same machine in subsequent periods, so the colour coding really helps here. The spectrum sequence also helps students and teachers put the Macs at the correct lab station as they move them around from room to room.

Getting rolling

Even a single cart helps immeasurably in a science class. For example, if the students are doing an experiment involving quantitative lab work and collecting data values, we use a single computer and a spreadsheet program. As each experiment finishes, the students enter their results into the spreadsheet. The spreadsheet program quickly does the relevant calculations in the background (unseen by the students). The students later work out the same calculations themselves as their homework.

When the class is over, I print up the spreadsheet results of the calculations, make them into an overhead and use it to teach a lesson the next day. When I put the overhead up, the students can see right away how their calculations matched the expected results of the experiments. Since the spreadsheet program has already done all the calculations for each student as he or she entered the data, I can simply check the results instead of systematically checking each student's calculations. This saves marking time and gives me more time to do hands-on, interesting work with my students.

Physics students can use a computer to run simulations with slight changes in the variables each time. Biology students can set the computers to monitor plant metabolism experiments while the class is doing something else. Chemistry students can create and animate chemical reactions on screen. Only knowledge and the availability of software limit the possibilities for activities and learning.

After four years, it is clear the mobile computer carts are a success. The school now has extensive integration of computer technology into the course curriculum, and the carts are always in demand. And, as it's turning out, the computers and software were probably a better investment than textbooks would have been since we can easily adapt them to any new curriculum requirements. Our students spend more time in each class doing hands-on experiments, investigating scientific principles and phenomena for themselves and really learning.

Independent study projects with a difference

When I design an independent study project for my chemistry classes, I offer the students a number of different project formats. This gives students of different learning abilities and styles the opportunity to show me what they have learned in their own way. Each project explores similar content and processes, but the students have a choice of how they present their work.

Here are some of the presentation choices I have given my students over the years:

Molecular Model and Fact Sheet: build a 3-D molecular model from materials of your choice. Write a fact sheet (not a mini-essay) to outline the properties and uses of a chemical.

Chemistry Board Game: create a board game to review a chemistry topic. Prepare an instruction page and a reference sheet for the chemistry involved.

Your Own Periodic Table: design a periodic table organizing items other than elements. Show at least four periodic trends. Provide an information sheet to relate the periodic patterns to the real periodic table.

A Chemical Autobiography: write the autobiography of a substance, describing its properties as anthropomorphic qualities. A mystery with clues or a children's story with pictures are possibilities.

Applications Poster and Fact Sheet: illustrate a chemical concept or industrial process in an original way. Prepare a fact sheet in non-essay style to outline the uses and implications for daily life.

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