Science Skills "Take" Better With Data Collection & Analysis Package

Physics students at Sycamore High School in the Cincinnati, Ohio, metropolitan area are exploring motion with PC-based laboratory tools. Each cooperative learning group of three to four students works at a PC lab station that includes a Personal Science Laboratory (PSL) interface card, measuring probes from Team Labs in Boulder, Colo., and their Personal Science Laboratory Explorer software

At the start of the school year, students explore kinematics with motion sensor probes. As the year progresses, students use temperature probes, light probes and digital multimeters for sophisticated laboratory experiments. Using the motion probe, students initially measure their own body motion and the motion of a small toy car. They prepare and analyze graphs of position vs. time, velocity vs. time, and acceleration vs. time. All three graphs are compared to each other, giving students a firm understanding of the concepts of position, velocity and acceleration and their interrelationships. Using PSL, students can immediately analyze graphs of their actual lab data, versus taking it home as homework. The classroom period is devoted to originally analyzing and interpreting the meaning of graphical representations.

Selecting an Interface 

Bernie Clemens-Walatka, physics teacher and science department supervisor, explains why the school chose Team Labs: "We wanted a system that would meet the needs of any student. The system should enable a full range of students to collect highly accurate data. Their data could then be the basis for developing science concepts and could serve as the connection between science and mathematics." The school wanted a system that would be sturdy enough for all high school grade levels, and software that would be usable at an independent level with minimal instruction. 

Impact of Real-Time Data 

Sycamore physics students are now "in charge" of their own learning. At the start of an academic year, laboratory work includes specific directions with discovery-type questions. Students immediately assume responsibility for selecting axis ranges and portions of graphs to analyze, and performing appropriate mathematical analysis. As the year progresses, students assume ownership of the process and acquire a mature understanding of graphs. Teacher directions generally decrease and student decisions predominate. 

All students get time for opportunities in data analysis
beyond what was available even at the honors level 
prior to the PSL lab.

Prior to the 93-94 academic year, physics students got experimental motion data by tediously measuring dots on a ticker tape or by reading a stop watch. A single class period could collect very little data. With the PSL motion sensor, probes and graphing software, students now quickly evaluate many graphical representations of their measuring results. Feedback is rapid and frequent. Students, rather than teachers, evaluate the worth of a particular trial. Teachers give immediate coaching on lab events during class, when students are most receptive. 

Thus, all students get time for opportunities in data analysis beyond what was available even at the honors level prior to the PSL lab. And, when these students are tested on the meaning of graphs, their understanding is significantly better than what typically occurs in first-year physics.

Beyond the Traditional 

The system d'es more than merely automate previous high school experiments. Clemens-Walatka's students perform sophisticated lab studies not possible before PSL. "For example," she says, "students use radiometric light probes to investigate the intensity of light versus the angle of incidence of that light, from which they are able to explain the seasons of the year."

Students also use their data in innovative ways. For instance, real-time data is exported to a spreadsheet and matched to a mathematical equation, letting students explore equations as expressions of physical reality and develop an appreciation for the utility and beauty of mathematics.

As collaborative teams, groups of students discover relationships between mathematics and science applications. Traditionally, math is often perceived as abstract, without connection to the real world. 

As they move from physics to second-year chemistry, Sycamore students who have worked extensively with PSL are evaluated. In the academic year after summer vacation, these students still retain their skills in collecting and analyzing data. And the school's second-year chemistry teacher says students retain their understanding of graphical concepts, allowing them to immediately analyze and interpret chemical data. 

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