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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

7 ways data collection is improving STEM education


Written by Larry Plank

One district is getting students more active and analytical with data-collection tools, like probeware

Today’s students, being technology natives, expect the same kinds of engagement in the classroom as they seek out online. STEM classes in particular have a natural potential to be both tech-rich and inquiry-based, especially hands-on lab activities. The recent addition of probeware—sensory-based handheld devices for measuring things like water quality, light, and temperature—has allowed us to bring students out into nature and introduce them to the world of data collection and analysis. Here are 7 ways technology is enhancing and expanding STEM education in our school district.

Technology helps students acquire scientific literacy and hands-on experience.

Science isn’t about memorizing facts and formulas. It’s about developing an understanding of the scientific process and giving students opportunities to apply that process to their learning.

One exciting way we’re infusing technology into STEM education is through our district’s Innovations Labs. To date, we’ve installed these labs in one K–8 school and two middle schools. Each Innovations Lab includes a science lab space with mobile furniture, a robotics court, netbooks, and SPARK handheld science learning devices. The size of three regular classrooms, this lab provides an active space where students can build problem-solving and critical thinking skills. They can even write on their desks or on the walls to draw out ideas, similar to how professional scientists and engineers might.

We also use the mobile science learning devices across our district in grades K-12 for real-time data collection in a variety of core classes, electives, and Career and Technical Education (CTE) classes. This type of technology, which integrates probeware with inquiry-based content and assessment, represents a key tool for promoting investigations using quantitative data that results in meaningful learning for students.

Creating these hands-on experiences, which incorporate the environments and the tools of modern science and technology careers, is critical to helping students develop scientific literacy and a love for STEM.

It prepares students for college and careers.

Our local universities support this approach as well. Several years ago, the nearby University of South Florida reported that they had to spend a significant amount of time teaching freshmen how to use probeware devices in their science laboratories. So they asked all the local school districts to emphasize these types of technology tools in high school science labs. Expanding our use of the devices has helped immensely in preparing students for college and careers, and our local post-secondary partners are thrilled.

It allows students to explore science in the field.

With mobile technology tools, students can access science anytime and anywhere, just like real STEM professionals. For example, each year all sixth graders take a field trip to Nature’s Classroom, an outdoor environmental education program located along the Hillsborough River. During the three-day hands-on experience, students study the ecosystem surrounding the river. Here, they use their handheld devices to conduct labs to examine water quality, among other things, to see how the river’s health affects things such as our drinking water supply. It would be cumbersome and expensive to take traditional lab equipment to the river, but technology makes it easy for students to gather and examine data on-the-go.

It saves time.

As teachers get busier and schools get more pressed for time, technology helps us make better use of the time we have with students. How? The probeware minimizes set-up and clean-up time, and the time it takes students to collect and analyze their data. This means that in a class like biology, which is tested in Florida, teachers can implement a full complement of labs in less time. In addition, in AP Biology, a lab that used to take two to three hours can now happen in 45 to 50 minutes.

Further, because the data is available instantaneously and organized in a way that’s visually pleasing, students can spend more time on analysis rather than data collection. This results in deeper conceptual learning.

It supports argument-driven inquiry.

Having this data has also changed the way we approach science in the classroom. For example, one of our district initiatives is argument-driven inquiry. In our high schools, several teachers now ask students to engage in the process of argumentation, instead of writing traditional lab reports. After students collect and analyze their data using the probeware, they create a poster to share their findings with the class. Then their classmates ask them questions. Through these experiences, students are learning how to make a good argument based upon evidence and strengthening their critical thinking skills.

It engages parents in STEM.

Parents are very important in the decision making process for what interests students might pursue beyond high school, so it’s important to provide hands-on opportunities for them, too. Several schools host STEM nights two to three times a year to engage parents in STEM. During the hands-on events, students will guide their parents through a lab they’ve done, often using the probeware. It’s a fun experience for everyone, and one that underscores the importance and relevance of STEM.

It improves students’ understanding of STEM concepts and practices.

The use of technology-supported inquiry in our schools is helping to improve students’ understanding of STEM concepts and practices, while increasing their motivation to learn more.

Our district is typically above the state average in science and math, and we’ve seen some significant gains over the past three years at the elementary level. Among the 10 largest districts in Florida, we’ve moved from seventh or eighth place all the way up to second in science scores for elementary schools. Our focus on STEM and technology tools has definitely had an impact. It has created a culture shift around the importance of science and the idea that science can be fun. It’s this shift in thinking, especially among teachers and students in the early grades, that has gotten us to where we are now.

Larry Plank is the director for K-12 STEM education for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida.

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