Computer-Based Lab Provides Hands-On Approach to Scientific Exploration

When Doug Kessler walked into a local WalMart two years ago, he never imagined he would find a product that could revolutionize the way he taught chemistry. In conjunction with IBM, the discount superstore was sponsoring a give-away of microcomputer-based laboratories. Kessler won the contest, and Douglas County High School (Castle Rock, Colo.), where he teaches, later received one of the systems. "It was a brand new toy to me," recalls Kessler about the Personal Science Laboratory (PSL). "After using it for a while and seeing what its potential was, I began experimenting more." Kessler quickly placed the unit in his classroom, so his college-prep and advanced placement chemistry students could begin using it. Initially, four IBM-compatible machines were connected to the PSL, allowing students to work together on various experiments. A Natural Progression "I'm very lab-oriented in the way I teach," says Kessler. "I try to make my lab as 'real' as it can be." He adds that utilizing a computer to analyze data seemed like a natural progression, based on his observations of the work done at university labs. Invented by IBM, the Personal Science Laboratory enables teachers and students to explore science, math and technology in an interactive, hands-on approach. The PSL product line includes probes that measure physical phenomena, such as light, temperature, pH, rotary motion and AC/DC voltage. Software, available for third grade through junior college levels, provides real-time data acquisition and display. It supports the concept that students should "get straight to the science," rather than spend class time setting up equipment and performing repetitive calibrations. Team Labs, based in Boulder, Colo., acquired the PSL product line from IBM last November. Kessler says his students generally use the system two to three times per week. No technical expertise is required to obtain great results. He notes that he spent about 15 minutes introducing them to the machines. In the past, according to Kessler, girls appeared to be more "technophobic" than the boys. With the PSL, however, he "had no trouble getting all of the kids to push all the buttons." General Chemistry students started with a series on calorimetry, measuring the heat given off by various processes with a pre-calibrated waterproof probe. Before, measurements were done with standard thermometers, and data plotted by hand. The PSL has dramatically shortened the time it takes to complete the series. "To me, one of our jobs is to make students more efficient learners," says Kessler. AP classes, meanwhile, studied rate of reaction with a Digital Multimeter Module, which measures voltage and currents simultaneously. They also performed pH readings and transferred the data from the PSL Explorer Software to Microsoft Excel, a spreadsheet. More Involved Learners Kessler says thanks to the interaction with computers, students now are more involved in the labs. "I can usually stand back and they continue working." He even comments that "they don't mind redoing an experiment when the results are questionable," adding that several have come to class after school to do just that. Another advantage of the Personal Science Laboratory is its accuracy. For example, the system can measure temperature changes as small as .05 degrees C, linear position to 0.1 mm and angular position to 0.24 degrees. This allows students to have more confidence in their results. In the past year, Kessler has purchased additional probes to perform experiments never before possible at Douglas County High. He says he's had no problems with the components, which are built with rugged, high-quality materials to be "student-proof." Kessler is also impressed with the level of support provided by Team Labs since they took charge. "If I have a problem, I just dial their hotline and you get help immediately." Other instructors have heard about the PSL's success in motivating students, and would like to follow suit. One physics professor has already observed Kessler's classes in action on a few occasions. "Once he saw how excited some of my kids were, his interest went up," says Kessler.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.