Digital Tools Push Math, Science to New Levels

By Michelle R. Davis — June 20, 2007 5 min read
Dorian Janney, left, a science teacher at Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology, in Maryland, works with Maurier Espinoza, 12.

When high school physics teacher Eric J. Koser wants his students to learn about motion and force, they use a conventional device called a ticker-tape timer that prints dots related to the time it takes an object to move from one point to another. The students work out their calculations and then graph their findings with paper and pencil. All this takes three full classes.

Then students use a computerized motion sensor to calculate the same thing. It takes about 25 seconds to conduct the same analyses that took them three days to do by hand, and the results appear neatly graphed on a computer screen.

Koser believes his students must understand the concepts behind technology—which is why he first has them use the decidedly low-tech method with the ticker-tape timer before moving on to the computerized motion sensor, which they’ll use the rest of the semester.

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Helping Young Readers

“Technology has changed things dramatically,” says Koser, who has taught science for 13 years and is now teaching at Mankato West High School in the 7,000-student Mankato, Minn., public schools.

More than ever, teachers of mathematics and science say, when digital tools are incorporated into the curriculum, the change motivates students to get through the drudgery and uncertainty of data collection to the payoff of results that simulate and showcase the theories they’re studying. Plus, more sophisticated use of technology in math and science classes offers students opportunities to do more hands-on work and experience what professionals are actually doing in laboratories.

“Children today find paper and pencil boring, boring,” says Elliot Soloway, a professor of computer science and education at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who has spent decades devising technological tools for math and science classrooms. “The kids are about the technology, the interactivity, the immediacy that technology gives.”

Powerful Tools

On a typical day in an 8th grade aerospace class at Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology, part of the 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., public schools, teacher Dorian Janney’s students are scattered in clusters working on separate projects. Some are downloading real data from a National Aeronautics and Space Administration Web site for a project studying solar flares, short-lived bursts of energy on the sun’s surface.

Other students are working in a back room with an astronomer from a nearby NASA facility. They gather around a laptop balanced on a stack of boxes and peer at a computer program that provides hard data on planets outside this solar system.

Meanwhile, a handful of others are outside conducting low-tech experiments: flying kites and taking measurements to test out the Pythagorean theorem, which deals with measurements of the sides of right-angled triangles.

Janney typically uses an interactive whiteboard, a blackboard-size screen that projects her computer screen and PowerPoint presentations, incorporating graphics and pictures. It allows her to draw on the screen to emphasize a point or pull pictures or other graphics from the Internet.

Students in her class use a variety of technologies. They often use the whiteboard to make presentations to the class. They’ll work together around one of the eight computers in the class. Or they’ll use a Web camera and integrate graphics to produce weather reports, which they post online as podcasts.

“I just couldn’t teach without technology anymore,” Janney says. “It opens up so many meaningful things you can do.”


1. Use technology as a part of the existing math or science curriculum, not simply to show off the latest gadget.

2. Provide hands-on experiences for students, whether through the use of digital datacollection tools or computer simulations.

3. Utilize technology to get students through the drudgery of data collection faster and toward results that emphasize the theories they’re studying. Make sure, though, that students understand the concepts underlying the data collection.

4. Use technology to provide small-group instruction to different levels of students in the same classroom. That can be done by organizing the groups around the available computers.

5. Get immediate feedback on students’ knowledge through the use of hand-held computing devices called clickers, which can provide a quick picture of their basic understanding of scientific and mathematical concepts.

Yet it’s not just specialized math and science schools where high-tech tools are being used.

A vast array of activities that in the past might have been nothing but a dry lecture with some overhead pictures can now come to life. “Applets,” or computer-simulation activities, can allow students to build circuits on a computer screen or graph trigonometric functions. Students can conduct virtual dissections of frogs, pigs, and other creatures without requiring animal cadavers or having students exposed to chemical preservatives; the technology saves school districts thousands of dollars, allows students to do multiple dissections on the same creature and get immediate feedback about what they did right or wrong, and ensures a safer enviornment for dissections. Graphing calculators, temperature probes, sensors, and video are all de rigueur in many science and math classes.

Of course, some educators point out that relying only on computer simulations for dissections and other scientific learning can be a problem because students don’t experience the true reality and serendipitous learning that come from handling actual material—including frog legs.

“There’s a pedagogical danger that students won’t develop open-ended skills from an animated dissection, that it doesn’t have the genetic variety we find in animals,” says Brian R. Shmaefsky, a professor of biology at Kingswood College in Houston and the secretary-treasurer of the National Association of Biology Teachers. “But for teachers dealing with student and parental complaints about animals, I’m for technology like that in the classroom.”

Students, for their part, say bringing technology akin to what they use daily in their personal lives into the classroom seems natural to them. “Science and math classes and technology go hand in hand,” says Phil Hart, a senior at Mankato West High School. “It’s like building a house without power tools,” he says of forgoing technology in such classes. “You can do it without them, but it’s a lot harder.”

But experts say that educators need to do much more than just show off the latest gizmo to make technology effective.

Ann McMullan, the executive director of educational technology for the 41,000-student Klein Independent School District in Texas, makes sure technology is incorporated in a meaningful way. In a district project that is still expanding, most classes get a “technology package” that includes at least four computers, an interactive whiteboard, a liquid crystal display, or LCD projector, and a document camera. The district then provides nine hours of teacher training with the equipment package.

“This really is not about technology—it’s about instruction,” McMullan says.

For teachers to truly embrace the technology, and incorporate it into the curriculum, they have to have ready access to it, says Donna M. Blaney, the magnet coordinator at the Parkland magnet school. It’s a waste of time to train teachers on interactive whiteboards, for example, if they can’t go back and use them every day in their classrooms, she says.

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