Data Loggers Help N.J. High School Deliver Inquiry-Based Science Instruction


While not all students will choose a career in the sciences, daily experiences with their surroundings will unite them with most aspects of science. For this reason, it is imperative that students have the cognitive abilities to decipher and ask questions about their environment. As such, an inquiry-based approach to learning science provides students with a lifelong method of exploring and learning about science.

Students pose questions based on their knowledge, decide on methods of discovering the answers, perform investigations to gather information, and analyze the results to broaden their understanding of scientific phenomena. Inquiry-based learning has gained popularity among educators over the last decade as a favored method for introducing students to new concepts through exploratory activities such as demonstrations, modeling and the use of online data. In addition, the growing number of schools with Internet access has given more educators the opportunity to incorporate real-time data into their curriculum.

This online data was successfully used by Chatham High School's ninth-grade earth science students to utilize an introductory inquiry-based weather lesson that compared online data with local temperature data gathered using portable, automated temperature sensors from Onset Computer Corp. (800-LOGGERS, These devices, known as HOBO data loggers, are battery-powered instruments that record and time-stamp conditions such as temperature, humidity and light intensity, and then display the data on a computer graph.

The year opened with a number of lessons related to inquiry methods and the nature of science. Students quickly learned the various differences between quantitative and qualitative observations, as well as how to be concise in their scientific terminology. From there, students applied these new skills to a short-term local investigation employing the HOBO data loggers.

The investigation began with the students surveying quadrangles and selecting classmates to take the HOBOs home for a weekend based on where the students reside in the community. The goal was to gather temperature data that would identify the locations of a variety of microclimates within the community. The students already had a preconceived idea of what factors influenced the distribution of microclimates, so the selection of students to take the HOBOs home was based on this preconceived idea. The students were impressed that such a small, unassuming device was going to gather real-time data every hour on the hour from 5 p.m. on Friday until Monday, when the data loggers were returned to school and the data downloaded.

The day after the data was downloaded, a discussion began that included factors which the students thought would influence the distribution of local microclimates. The students received comprehensive Excel data tables and graphs of the data collected by the 10 students who took the HOBOs home for the weekend. They were then asked to search for support for their thoughts about the distribution of microclimates. There is a variety of local factors that could influence the data, including a variation in topography; urban/suburban influences; and water features such as ponds, rivers, streams and a swamp. The students were able to quickly identify interesting temperature ranges that may have been caused by one of these local factors.

There were also a number of hidden concepts of this investigation that could have never been addressed without the use of the data loggers. About half of the students forgot to put the HOBOs outside until the next day, which was quickly revealed by the separation of data on the Excel-generated graphs. These mistakes acted as a perfect segue into a discussion about human error and how it can influence data analysis.

When students were asked about the actual hourly temperature based on the variation of temperatures they saw within their community compared to the temperatures they saw on the weather Web sites for their location, another interesting concept was introduced: the use of metadata. Yet, another influence on the data collected was the cloudy and sunny weather conditions over the weekend when the HOBOs were outside collecting data. The students were asked to identify the time when the sun came out, and then asked about the overall influence that clouds have on daily temperature ranges.

The effectiveness of this introductory inquiry-based lesson revealed itself throughout the year as the students assumed the role of earth scientists and selected a project to gather local environmental data for an extended period of time as part of a yearlong assignment. They made decisions about the type of data they wanted to gather, and simultaneously were meticulous about the process to be successful in their investigations.

Scientists and educators need to develop innovative ways to work together to create a more effective learning environment for students that harnesses the Internet's power. The inquiry-based weather lesson conducted at Chatham High School had a significant impact on the effectiveness of the students to learn science. The combined use of inquiry-based instruction, automated data loggers and online data is one methodology that can be employed in more classrooms to ensure that students are going to learn how to apply the thought processes inherent to the sciences.

— Missy Holzer

Contact Information
Onset Computer Corp.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2004 issue of THE Journal.