Takin’ It to the Creeks


Handheld technology is making for a whole new kind of science lesson.

Mobile Computing

FIELD HANDS Three Seaside High students use wireless
devices to analyze data in Yosemite National Park.

KELLIE DOUBEK DOESN’T mince words: Full-size computers don’t belong in the field. “You can get a handheld to do the same thing for a fraction of the cost,” says Doubek, an educational consultant who advises Midwesternschools on implementing technology.

Out west, at Seaside High School, right outside Monterey, CA, students in grades 9-12 are proving Doubek right. Seaside students are using handheld devices and wireless probes to measure temperature, stream flow, pH, and other factors at Seaside State Beach, as well as in Yosemite National Park. The study was made possible through a grant from the NationalOceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The Palm-based devices with wireless probes are tremendous student motivators, according to teacher Pam Miller, who also serves as science department chair at Seaside.“We’re able to get much more meaningfuldata, and we’re better able to shareaccess to the data.” The sophisticationof the data-gathering devices makes areal difference, she says. “Kids like tofeel like they’re doing real science, andthis is real science.”

Using handheld devices such as standard Palm or Windows-based PDAs is attractive to schools for several reasons— particularly, as Doubek pointed out, cost. “Handhelds make very attractive grant proposals because they’re a low-cost way to get a lot of technology into a lot of students’ hands,” says Karen Fasimpaur, president of K12 Handhelds, a California-based company that consults with school districts nationally on effective uses of mobile technologies.

Unfortunately, Doubek says, handhelds often aren’t used effectively because educators “don’t realize what a great tool they are.” Probing Around Outside the classroom, there are two basic ways that handhelds are commonally used—either as GPS units or with probes. Probes are mechanical devices that attach to handhelds for measuring air temperature, chemical composition, water flow, force, and much more. They’re a popular accessory for handhelds, according to Mike Curtis, a Michigan-based educational consultant who focuses on mobile devices. Hundreds of types of probes are available, Curtis says, for measuring “everything from ammonia to moisture content, salinity, and light.... Maybe not radiation, but just about anything else.”

Handhelds with connected probes are excellent for the field because so much of the computing can take place on the spot while students are actively gathering the data—compared to the traditional scenario of collecting data, then connecting to a computer back in the classroom to analyze it.


Creative ways to use handhelds outside the classroom

According to Michigan-based educational consultant Mike Curtis, to make a field trip such as a nature hike more effective, students can take turns using a handheld to take photos (if the device has an embedded camera, as some do; otherwise by using an attached camera), to write short observations, and to make sketches of what they observe.

One project Curtis worked on measured what was released into a chamber when certain materials were burned. Each student had a handheld, with a probe for every four of them. One student in each group used a handheld as a camera and took pictures; another used a handheld to collect data in Excel; a third student took notes on a handheld-based word processor; and the fourth used the probe. The students later shared data and wrote up their reports.

Water-quality studies using probes to measure the pH of local streams are a common use of mobile devices in the field, says Karen Fasimpaur, president of K12 Handhelds, which advises school districts on the uses of mobile technologies. Another possibility: using handhelds with small add-on cameras that connect through the device’s secure digital (SD) slot. Fasimpaur names Veo International and Taiwan-based Spectec Computer as two companies that offer these cameras.

Probes come with software that analyzes and displays the data as it’s gathered, right on the handheld screen. “They’re great for that,” says Fasimpaur. “Particularly if you contrast them to traditional data sensors, the handhelds have so much computing capability.”

“They stimulate conversation among students,” Doubek says. “The ability to beam and share really gets kids excited, because they’re sharing and talking about the data they’re collecting.”

Making the Right Purchase

Basic handhelds can be fairly inexpensive, with some monochrome-screen models selling for less than $50. A higher-end handheld that includes Bluetooth wireless connectivity might cost upwards of $200. Prices for probes vary hugely depending on what they do; each probe has a specific purpose. A simple probe for measuring temperature or pH might cost $15; a more complex device for measuring, say, dissolved oxygen might cost several hundred dollars. Even when each student has a handheld, all but the most basic probes can be—and typically are— shared. Companies that offer probes specifically for the education market include Pasco Scientific, Data Harvest Educational, Imagiworks (now part of Pasco), and Vernier Software and Technology.

One suggestion from Curtis: Schools buying handhelds for field use should consider spending a bit more and getting devices with Bluetooth wireless connectivity. Often, schools have discovered incompatible connections between newer handhelds and older probes. Wireless connectivity in both devices makes that a non-issue.

[With the handhelds], we’re able to get much more meaningful data, and better able to share access to the data. Kids like to feel like they’re doing real science, and this is real science.
Pam Miller, Seaside High School teacher

Staying In Focus

However enticing it sounds to add low-cost handhelds and assorted probes, experts stress the importance of setting curricular goals before investing in any products. As with any technology device, having a clear use in mind before implementation is critical. “Don’t get into it because it’s exciting technology or something looks neat,” says Fasimpaur. Instead, she adds, schools should ask themselves “what their curricular goals are, irrespective of technology. What are the areas that students are struggling with?” With that knowledge, districts can use handheld technology to address existing issues. That kind of focus can help with funding as well, Fasimpaur points out. “Schools are under so much pressure right now in terms of achievement. [Any proposal] has to directly relate to achievement issues.” Another way to make handhelds more cost-effective—and educationally useful—is to consider their broader uses, to plan multiple ways of applying them beyond science classes. “I caution schools: What is your focus?” Doubek says. “If measuring levels of pH in a pond is the only time you’re going to pull out those handhelds, that’s a big investment.”

In the end, it’s a matter of value. Handhelds in the field offer plenty of computing power in a device that costs a fraction of the price of a laptop computer. According to Doubek, though, some districts still have reservations, shying away from handhelds because “they don’t produce a product”—the sorts of color printouts and flashy presentations that a bigger computer can churn out. But school districts shouldn’t be fooled by that.“It’s process vs. product: What’s your focus?” she asks.“Handhelds are great for process learning.”

Linda L. Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.