Classroom Technology

Tech Tools Help Make Biology Classes a Visual Experience

By Michelle R. Davis — June 25, 2008 3 min read
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Biology teacher Samantha A. Moyer weaves the use of an interactive whiteboard, PowerPoint presentations, streaming video, and a three-dimensional projector into her teaching, whether the topic is ecology or genetics. She wouldn’t know how to use the old-school transparencies that were once a staple of biology class if she had to.

Moyer, who teaches 10th graders at Carlisle High School in Carlisle, Pa., says high-tech gadgets and presentations are the way to reach her students, turning once-abstract concepts into easier-to-understand visual images.

“You’re talking about things on a microscopic level, and suddenly they’re seeing how it really happens,” says Moyer. “The technology brings it to life.”

Her 4,700-student district is part of Pennsylvania’s digital-school-district initiative, a state-sponsored effort to identify better ways to use technology to raise student achievement and improve the management of schools.

Many of the changes in technology used in biology instruction, particularly at the high school level, have trickled down from colleges and universities, says John M. Moore, the president-elect of the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Biology Teachers.

“There’s been a fast movement into the DNA and biotechnology areas on the college and graduate levels,” he says. “That has filtered down to what needs to be taught in high schools in any type of advanced courses.”

That can mean high-tech probes and equipment for cutting, splicing, and separating DNA, or introducing viruses for lab study, he says.

Many of the high-tech devices collect computer data and do calculations in an instant, says Bunny Jaskot, the director-coordinator for the NABT’s executive board and the association’s Region II coordinator for New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. “The benefit is that it gets done quickly, and in school you have a limited number of minutes,” she says. “Time is of the essence.”

Electronic data-collection tools also help students avoid a time lag in data collection so they don’t lose interest, says Brian R. Shmaefsky, a professor of biology at Kingswood College in Houston.

“It expedites interpreting the data,” Shmaefsky says. “In the earlier stages, it gets [students] to the outcomes you want to teach quicker with less frustration. For the younger kids, I want them to succeed using the right thinking and not having to worry about every variable and things going wrong.”

In addition, the gadgets help prepare students for the real world of research. ”I don’t know of anyone in research doing their own calculations,” says Jaskot, who recently retired from teaching high school life sciences after 40 years.

Shmaefsky says that in his own research field of biochemistry, he and his colleagues often do computer modeling before they begin any actual laboratory research.

Visualizing Biology

Technology also helps students picture key biology concepts that take place on a micro level and can be hard to grasp. New computer simulations that can be presented with an interactive whiteboard or on class computers, for example, give students a better visual concept of what takes place, Moore says.

For example, teaching concepts about cell respiration, protein synthesis, or even what the inside of a cell looks like has been difficult in a static, one-dimensional format, but now “it can be in a three-dimensional format, and technology almost places you inside of these structures,” he says.

“It removes the abstract nature so students can picture what is actually happening.”

Other teachers use simulations in place of dissections to allow students who object to picking apart earthworms, frog intestines, or fetal pigs to instead get a virtual experience.

Moyer, the Carlisle High biology teacher, says when she introduces earthworm dissection to her students, she uses a special projector, which allows for 3-D projection, to show her dissection to the class. “I’ll put the whole dissecting tray on the projector and put it up on the Smartboard,” she says.

Virtual labs and manipulation can also help in classwork on biotechnology and genetics. Programs let students breed fruit flies “virtually”—without worrying about the variables that can come into play in real life, Shmaefsky says. And such technology can enable students to do experiments that otherwise would be too dangerous or too costly.

“Today’s students expect this high-tech approach,” Shmaefsky adds.

“They’re really used to this 3-D image from video games like World of Warcraft,” he says. “They live in this three-dimensional world.”

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