Archived — Using new technology effectively

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Aubry Farenholtz and Gordon Spann
D.W. Poppy Secondary School and H.D. Stafford Secondary School
Langley, British Columbia

Aubry Farenholtz and Gordon Spann have gained a lot of experience working with new technology in the classroom. For the past few years, they have each been implementing the Technology Enhanced Physics Instruction (TEPI) project in their respective classrooms.

The two high school physics teachers have become big advocates of the TEPI program because of the way it fully integrates computer and multimedia technologies into their students' daily learning routines. Using the program, Mr. Farenholtz and Mr. Spann have found that students develop a wide range of skills beyond the prescribed learning outcomes in the B.C. science curriculum. Their students also become computer literate and acquire skills useful for time management, resource management, collaborative group work and goal setting.

Here Mr. Farenholtz and Mr. Spann talk about the philosophy behind the TEPI program and two pieces of technology that they use in their classroom.

Integrating technology into the classroom

For us, the chief advantage of the TEPI program is that it provides a way to integrate technology into a wide variety of activities that suit a range of learning styles. It gives students the ability to control (within limits set by the teacher) the sequence and variety of activities they take part in to better reflect their learning style or areas of interest. Our role has also changed, from being "disseminators of knowledge" to facilitators who monitor, motivate, tutor, or provide "just-in-time" small-group instruction.

Typically, four or more activities will often happen simultaneously in our classroom - ranging from hands-on experiments, possibly using computer-based data collection methods, to interactive testing at a computer station. More traditional activities, such as working through problem sets, one-on-one instruction or group lectures still take place, but the timing of these is determined by the students' pace and levels of success.

As our work with the program has evolved, student participation in senior physics has increased. Despite working with a progressively larger sample of the graduating class, student achievement on final exams has been maintained at the provincial average, suggesting that the TEPI classroom can help students of varied abilities to be successful.

In the paragraphs below we introduce two pieces of technology we use in our classrooms and describe some of the activities for which we use them. If you would like more information about TEPI, please contact us: ( or (

The adventures of Sonic Ranger and the Force Probe

Some of the most exciting things we have discovered are electronic instruments that can be hooked up to a computer to measure and record lab data. These devices make possible a whole range of experiments for which most schools do not have the resources.

The first of these is the Sonic Ranger. This device is very similar to the hand-held radar guns used by police, except that it uses sound waves to measure the position, velocity and acceleration of an object. It collects the information and can plot it on a graph as the object being studied moves.

To introduce students to the related concepts, we begin by having one student move about a room while another tracks him or her with the Sonic Ranger. They quickly gain an intuitive understanding of which graph curves correspond to which types of motion. The computer can help this along by drawing a particular curve that students can try to duplicate by moving in different directions and with varying velocities.

When they get the data collected with the Sonic Ranger in the computer, students can use the software to construct their own graphs and interpret the data. This way, the students spend more time actually studying physics rather than focusing on measurements and calculations.

There is an equally useful device called a Force Probe that we use in the dynamics section of our courses. After using traditional measuring devices, we found this new technology to be just amazing.

Consider, for example, teaching students about the static and kinetic co-efficients of friction. You can describe, when you try to move a stationary object, how the friction developed rises sharply to a peak and then levels off once the object is moving.

Force vs. time graph for stationary block until moving with constant velocity

Force vs. time graph for stationary block until moving with constant velocity

Showing them this phenomena is usually very difficult. However, the Force Probe changes all that. If students attach it to the line they are using to pull a block, it will record the force required and immediately display this information on screen. Students can point with one hand at the area on the curve that shows the change from one type of friction to another while pulling on the block to produce the data with another. There is no other way to record this data so simply and elegantly.

As with the Sonic Ranger, the Force Probe can be used to collect data from a wide variety of labs. The only limit is the teacher's and students' creativity.

There are lot of other phenomena that are either impossible or very difficult to duplicate in the classroom, for example, launching a projectile. For a student to keep track of the trajectory, he or she would need a very complex set-up involving strobe lights and a camera. Conducting the same experiment without air resistance is just about impossible in a high school.

This situation is very easy to simulate on a computer screen using Interactive Physics. Students can change the conditions, such as launch velocity and angle and even the atmospheric conditions and gravitational force, with just a few keystrokes.

A computer capable of handling the required hardware and software can be bought for about $2000 as of the time this is written. The various probes needed for physics labs cost about $500. The complete set of probes for physics, chemistry and biology will run you about $1000. There are also some software costs.

Unlike a lot of other lab equipment, this investment will meet many needs right through the year. Compare this to an air table, for example. An air table can be purchased for about $2000 and it is very useful for performing certain experiments, but once you have finished the relevant unit, it just sits in the corner collecting dust.

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