Science & Simulation Products Let Students Probe Real-World Problems

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According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), elementary schools in the U.S. are devoting more classroom time than ever to science instruction, more high school students are taking upper-level courses in this subject area, and universities are awarding more degrees in the natural sciences and engineering. Despite these trends, students in many regions of the country score below their international counterparts on science proficiency exams. 

In an effort to promote higher science achievement across all demographic groups, several organizations have formulated explicit guidelines for improving the learning environment. These national standards emphasize that students should engage in meaningful activities that regularly employ calculators, computers and other technological tools. 

This article discusses some of the latest science and simulation products for all age levels, whether CD-ROMs, videodiscs or microcomputer-based laboratories. For a complete listing of available programs, readers should request a catalog from companies in the included directory.

Never Too Young to Start 

Statistics gathered by the NSF reveal that a growing number of elementary school teachers and curriculum designers recognize that introducing basic scientific concepts to even the youngest students carries long-lasting benefits. Leading publishers have followed suit by releasing titles that cater to an early learning audience. 

Davidson & Associates hopes to satisfy kids' curiosity about the world with Science Blaster Jr., a CD-ROM for grades pre-K to 2. Aboard the Blaster ship, kids travel through space collecting, sorting and categorizing their findings. During the mission, they learn about weather and seasons, animals and plants, measurement and more. Progressively challenging steps build essential logic and thinking skills, while original songs and 3D graphics make learning fun. 

Thanks to enhancements in multimedia, children can take realistic "virtual field trips" to all corners of the Earth -- without getting their clothes dirty. Designed for ages 6 to 10, Scholastic's The Magic School Bus Explores Inside the Earth, distributed by Microsoft, transports users to six geological zones, from an underwater volcano to a giant earthquake fault. The School Edition comes with a three-hole-punched Teacher's Guide containing related activities.

Meeting National Standards 

Both of the above programs subscribe to the National Science Education Standards' (NSES) notion that curricula should stress understanding, reasoning and problem solving rather than the memorization of facts and terminology. Administrators seeking to implement those standards may wish to consult The Learning Team's NSES Awareness Kit, which assembles videos and print materials for use in workshops and formal presentations. 

K-6 teachers, meanwhile, can freely share ideas through Tips & Techniques, a semiannual newsletter from LEGO DACTA, or by logging onto The Brainium (http://www.brainium.com). Sponsored by MultiActive Technologies, The Brainium lets educators tap into vast online resources or collaborate with others on science projects. Hundreds of other Web sites offer lesson plans, photos and simulations covering everything from anatomy to zoology.

Links to Online Content  

In fact, many publishers have created Home Pages that link to the contents of their science programs. For instance, those who purchase DK Multimedia's Encyclopedia of Science can access a Web site with additional activities and an updated Who's Who section. Going further, Videodiscovery's Sleuthnet lets students design their own "mysteries" for the Science Sleuths product line. 

Expect the Internet to play an even larger role in science education as more schools get wired. Classroom Connect's Science Internet Curriculum Guide explains how to fit compelling online content into existing coursework. A bonus CD-ROM includes Web sites, free trial Internet access and selected shareware. 

Research conducted at the University of Illinois demonstrates some exciting possibilities for Web-based learning. Scientists there coupled commercial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) components with an IBM RS-6000 workstation and special software. Authorized remote users can control the MRI system via a standard Web browser; resulting images are displayed onscreen as soon as they are produced. 

Authorized remote users can control the MRI system 
via a standard Web browser.

Paul C. Lauterbur, director of the University of Illinois' MRI lab, says such technology could be applied to permit real-time experiments in space, undersea and in other dangerous environments. "A researcher can easily carry out appropriate projects without having to invest in the latest hardware or travel to a distant site." To find out more about "NmrScope" log onto http://bmrl.med.uiuc.edu:8080.

Videos Captivate Audiences 

Educators more comfortable in front of a television will be pleased to know that several videos and videodiscs promise to impart key scientific concepts without putting students to sleep. Macmillan/ McGraw-Hill's Science Videodisc collection comprises seven titles: Astronomy, Oceanography, Geology and Meteorology, Properties of Matter, Forces and Energy, Light and Waves, and Living Things. Barcoded stills and video clips support lessons. 

Two notable videos from National Geographic are Investigating Global Warming and Life Beyond Earth: The Science in Science Fiction. The latter surveys the equipment and methods used by NASA scientists to search for signs of extraterrestrials. 

Disney Educational Productions weighs in with Classroom Editions of the acclaimed "Bill Nye the Science Guy" TV shows. The 50 videos feature wacky contraptions, wild stunts, easy-to-follow experiments and plenty of humor.

Textbook Correlations 

Other firms offer videodiscs and/or software that complement traditional textbooks. CHEMedia from Prentice Hall provides opportunities for observing interesting chemical phenomena described in their texts' readings. For example, in a "Challenge" on Gas Laws, students must read sections from their book and view portions of a videodisc before designing a hot air balloon and predicting how much mass it can lift. 

Similarly, Saunders' General Chemistry CD-ROM serves as a companion to the firm's textbooks. The disc is divided into chapters that visually represent chemical structures, properties and reactions. 

New from Holt, Rinehart and Winston, SciencePlus: Technology and Society is a complete package of books, CD-ROMs, videodiscs, assessment software and audiotapes for middle-school science instruction. All three levels (green, red and blue) involve hands-on activities and home connections. While SciencePlus spans a broad range of concepts, other products address limited subject areas. 

Edunetics, a Steck-Vaughn company, produces software for grades 4-12 on topics such as Single-Celled Organisms &Bacteria, Plate Tectonics, Electricity &Magnetism, and Oxidation-Reduction Reactions. The firm offers various pricing options for schools and boasts a 30-day money-back guarantee. 

In addition, high school and college students may journey deep within the human body -- in CyberEd's Biology series -- or to the outskirts of space -- via Maris Multimedia's Solar System Explorer. The latter CD-ROM incorporates advanced celestial mechanics engines and 360-degree pan and zoom simulations to deliver a scientifically accurate experience.

Input from Actual Teachers 

As is the case in other disciplines, an increasing number of science products draw upon the expertise of practicing educators. Authored by a medical doctor and professor, A.D.A.M. Practice Practical from A.D.A.M. Software lets one navigate through thousands of anatomical structures. Any image and associated notes can be printed for convenient review away from the computer. 

Physics Academic Software's CUPLE -- the Comprehensive Unified Physics Learning Environment -- was created by faculty members from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Maryland. The CD-ROM encourages teachers to customize presentations by organizing existing lessons or adding their own. 

In addition, several programs have been developed with funds provided by the National Science Foundation or nonprofits. Two NSF-funded titles are Tom Snyder's Rainforest Researchers and Theatrix Interactive's Big Science Comics.

MBLs and More 

A distinct category of products allows students to gather data from their surroundings with sensors and probes. Team Labs' Personal Science Lab (PSL) product line includes probes for temperature, pH, light and AC/DC voltage. PSL software provides real-time data display. 

Another microcomputer-based lab (MBL), PASCO's Science Workshop sells in hardware and software bundles that suit chemistry, biology or physics experiments. PASCO representatives offer one-day Evaluation Workshops that demonstrate the benefits of MBLs. 

In the coming year, science and simulation packages surely will evolve to take advantage of the latest technologies. 

One forthcoming product signals what probably will be a hot trend. Scheduled for release in early 1997, eProbe from Knowledge Revolution enables students to collect an array of scientific data -- whether in the classroom or out in the field -- then immediately display, compare and manipulate that data. 

The eProbe package works in conjunction with the eMate 300, Apple's new mobile computer for education (see our Products dept.). "With eProbe and the eMate 300, students can now conduct investigations at school, at a nearby pond or on a mountain top -- wherever scientific inquiry takes them," notes Dr. Wayne C. Grant, Knowledge Revolution's vice president of educational products. 

Expect other science tools for the eMate 300, and also expect other mobile computers to debut in 1997, along with companion software. Science education is a high priority in this globally competitive age. From full, hands-on MBLs to virtual experiments on CD, CD-i or videodisc to Java-based simulations on the Web, technology has a lot to offer in the teaching of science.

This article originally appeared in the 12/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.

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