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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways to Use Tech in Science Class

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 31, 2019 13 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

What are effective ways to use tech in science classes?

Ed-tech can have an important role in science classes, but, with all the possible options out there, what tools should be used and how should educators use them?

This post will explore answers to that question. This is part of a series considering tech tools for different content classes (you can see the series on tech in math classes here). You might also be interested in previous posts appearing here on Science Instruction, as well as this collection of online science resources.

Today’s contributors are Erin Bridges Bird, Peggy Harte, Patrick Brown, James Concannon, Nick Cusumano, and Donna Markey. I’ve also included responses from readers. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Erin and Peggy on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Response From Erin Bridges Bird & Peggy Harte

Erin Bridges Bird and Peggy Harte are a collaborative researcher/educator team. Erin is a Ph.D., candidate in science and agriculture education at the University of California, Davis; Peggy is an elementary school science specialist teaching 350 1st to 6th grade students. Together, and with the support of the Center for Community and Citizen Science, Erin and Peggy are engaging students in environmental-science research and, in this way, helping them forge a personal bond to their community and local environment:

The first time the 4th and 5th grade students in Mrs. Harte’s elementary science classes were handed an iPad, their excitement distracted them from the lesson itself. How do we harness our students’ enthusiasm for technology and redirect it toward science? As we’ve implemented a nine-month bird-monitoring community- and citizen-science project (CCS), we have seen how purposeful science learning in which kids are trying to figure something out is key for students’ self-directed and skillful use of technology. Four principles guide the effective use of technology in our classroom:

Create a need for technology: The purpose of the students’ CCS project is multifaceted. These students want to know which birds visit their school campus from season to season in order to create a bird sanctuary for migratory birds and refuge for the year-round bird-residents. To do their scientific work, they need to know which species are—and “should be"—visiting their campus; however, as amateur birders, identifying birds is hard. This challenge creates a need for technology.

Choose appropriate technology for learning and project needs: The tablets support the students’ need to identify birds. With their thick protective cases, tablets are custom-made for field observations, and students can use them to take photographs of the birds for easier identification. The tablets also provide a short list of possible birds, saving students from having to flip through a whole field guide to identify each bird! Additionally, the tablets provide apps and access to online resources that students can use to enter their observations.

Provide time for exploring new technology: When students first received the tablets to help them identify their photographs of unknown birds as well as feathers they had found, they were so excited about the technology that they temporarily lost sight of their bird identification. Mrs. Harte gave her students time for self-directed exploration but set boundaries asking her students to explore a specific app. Students clicked on all the buttons and tested out all the bird sounds. They found their favorite, silliest, or scariest birds and noted each bird’s location in the United States. While this self-directed exploration may seem like a distraction from the lesson, investigating all the buttons allowed them to become experts in the kind of information and services the app provides and how best to navigate it.

Provide other resources and support student choice: As the students developed expertise in making field observations, many chose not to take their tablets outside, as the tablets slowed them down and distracted them from the birds. Some students found it more efficient to write notes about field markings than to take an in-focus photograph. Some preferred looking at the poster of birds in the classroom or looking at the diversity of birds in the field guides. Ultimately, students could access a range of resources to support their learning and were able to choose the tools that worked best for them at each phase of their research.

Response From Patrick Brown, James Concannon, & Nick Cusumano

Patrick L. Brown is a STEM coordinator at the Fort Zumwalt school district in O’Fallon, Mo. James P. Concannon is a science teacher educator at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. They are authors of Inquiry-Based Science Activities in Grades 6-12 (Routledge, 2018). Nick Cusumano is director of instructional technology for the Fort Zumwalt district:

Integrating technology may take some clever thinking, but we have found that technology unsurprisingly combines with all science topics we teach. We believe that integrating technology can enhance learning when teaching begins by focusing on sound instructional design and then following with a purposeful application. In this regard, scholarship shows that students learn best when instruction builds on prior knowledge and allows construction of new ideas through authentic experiences (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking 2000). We keep the scholarship close at mind when developing our instructional practices.

One pathway for research-based practices is to sequence science instruction so students are provided exploratory opportunities before the teacher explains new content. Explore-before-explain teaching is accomplished by first providing students with hands-on, minds-on experiences that lead to data collection and scientifically accurate understanding. We typically include technology in students’ hands-on explorations to help them capture data and think deeply about phenomena they witness firsthand. Some of the easiest but most powerful integrations of technology into our teaching have been to use digital projectors, or digital cameras and smartphones, to show science demonstrations to all students and allow us to record them. We have had much success using discrepant event demonstrations for topics such as weather and climate, Bernoulli’s Principle, and Temperature and Pressure to help students form evidenced-based explanations (Brown & Concannon, 2018). During class sessions, we videotape these demonstrations so students can rewatch them to gather additional data, form evidenced-based claims, and reflect on them to promote deep, conceptual understanding. This integration takes very little time and can occur during the typical presentation of the demonstration.

The second pathway to research-based practices uses phenomena as the hook for science learning. Phenomena-based teaching intellectually engages students because it situates learning in a meaningful and relevant context. We have seamlessly integrated technology into our ecology units. Through the construction of bottled ecosystems, students explore the intricacies of a self-sustaining ecosystem and use document cameras to collect data and carefully investigate the interdependence of organisms (Brown & Concannon, 2018). This integration garners a lot of “oohs and aahs” and allows students to look at organisms and their environment at a much closer level.

The third pathway to research-based practices is to use classroom inquiry aimed at engaging students in experiences where they formulate research questions and carry out valid and reliable investigations either through the guidance of the teacher or on their own (see Brown & Concannon, 2018). We have promoted mathematical thinking, data analysis, and representation through the use of computer-generated graphs and tables. Students can quickly learn how to organize and analyze data using programs such as Excel and Google Sheets and Charts. This simple integration allows students to represent their data in a more professional manor.

In all of the above pathways, the teacher orchestrates the learning through their lesson and curricular design. There is a whole host of other options that place the student in the role of a primary author or architect, and they use technology to represent their learning. Many of our science lessons ask students to create a unique artifact to demonstrate their learning (see 2-"Liter Bottles and Botanical Gardens: Using Inquiry to Learn Ecology” in Brown and Concannon, 2018). Students can easily create electronic infographics to depict their developing understanding and learning from science investigations with tools such as Canva©.

In closing, we consider our approach to using technology as a “less is more” strategy in which we apply technology as a tool to enhance research-based practices like explore-before-explain teaching, focusing on phenomena, and using classroom inquiry. We have found that the result of incorporating technology is that students gain a deeper conceptual understanding of both science and the practices professionals use to know and understand the natural world.

Further Reading:

Bransford, J., A. Brown, and R. Cocking. 2000. How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Brown, P and J. Concannon. 2018. Inquiry-based science activities in grades 6-12: Meeting the NGSS. London: Routledge.

Response From Donna Markey

Donna Markey, a national-board- and Leading Edge-certified teacher, recently retired from Vista Visions Academy in the Vista Unified school district in Vista, Calif. Since 2013, she has created online curriculum for secondary students in an online/blended program. She has also been a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford:

Technology in science classrooms is often seen as the answer to transforming education by providing students with 21st-century skills. Many believe technology alone can create an individualized learning pathway through a learner-centered environment, preparing students for future education or the workplace. While that is possible, it requires more than just making technology available; it requires support and effective use.

The SAMR (Substitution, Augmentation, Modification, Redefinition) Model, developed by Dr. Ruben Puentedura, provides criteria for evaluating technology use in education. The further teachers move toward Redefinition, the more effectively students use technology. This is especially applicable in science classrooms.

At the Substitution level, students might use computers for word processing and teachers use computers for keeping grades. In these examples, students and teachers are substituting technology for a task previously done without technology. There is nothing wrong with this—after all, it makes our jobs easier. However, are students being asked to think critically or problem-solve, core components of 21st-century skills?

At the Augmentation level, teachers and students do more than they could do previously. Data display is neater when typed onto a spreadsheet, and graphs can be drawn electronically. Data from formative assessments are faster to process via apps such as AnswerGarden, Kahoot, or Poll Everywhere These applications are helpful and are used often, but are students being asked to think critically or problem-solve?

Modification occurs when activities are modified to the point where they can ONLY be done with technology. These include many activities using Interactive Smartboards, document cameras, and video clips showing dangerous chemical reactions. Simulations, such as frog dissections and virtual labs (e.g., cloning, genetic fingerprinting, or density), now part of most science classrooms, save money in supplies and avoid animal-use controversies. We like the wow factor of these applications, and labs on the computer are a lot safer than giving scalpels to teenagers. New learning opportunities are provided. Student interest increases, and they are more engaged in critical thinking and problem-solving, but are they in charge of their own learning?

Redefinition is when projects are facilitated that are inconceivable without technology. Students become so invested in their learning that they define their own path of study. This goes by many names, e.g., Personalized Instruction, Project-based Learning, and Individualized Instruction. Simulations such as PhET, Concord Consortium, or NASA help them acquire knowledge, probes allow them to gather data, and Google tools foster collaboration with classmates. Direct instruction and formative assessments are still essential, but how students use the content they learn redefines learning.

Students might tackle a problem by connecting with a classroom in another part of the world to share perspectives and work toward solutions. They may gather real-time data, sort it using Google sheets, and create data-based computer models. They may video chat with a scientist or participate in an interactive NASA webinar. They may blog about an environmental issue, arguing with evidence for their point of view. Classmates or community members may comment on it, thus giving them a public audience. They are more engaged because they are in control of their learning. Teachers facilitate the activities, but the thinking and problem-solving is done by students. Through effective use of technology, they assume responsibility for their own learning, thus providing them with 21st-century skills and ultimately redefining and transforming education.

Responses From Readers

Thanks to Erin, Peggy, Patrick, James, Nick, Patrick and Donna, and to readers, for their contributions!

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