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Using Computer and Calculator-Based Interfaces in Biology

A New Type of Learning and Understanding


The primary goals of this session are to:

  • improve laboratory experiences for students.
  • encourage inquiry based problem solving.
  • provide a place for teachers to learn how to use computer/CBL assisted data collection tools.
  • collect and disseminate ideas for conducting probeware experiments for classroom use.
  • share teaching ideas and experiences so that we learn from each other.
  • have students ask similar questions in different areas, generate data unique to their locale, and share data and interpretations.

Technology is with us to stay. Computer interfacing has blossomed recently - a whole new and exciting arena of experimentation in the laboratory is now possible. Students now have access to real-world data collection tools that are easy-to-use, compact, portable and affordable. Students can unleash their creativity and enthusiasm and be problem-solvers.

The limits and restrictions of the traditional 45- or 55-minute class period can be breached with this technology. Data collection can occur instantaneously, overnight, or over a period of weeks or months. Students can expect instant feedback on their experimental designs, since data may be graphed as it is collected. The analysis of data has never been easier. When students used to spend hours making sense out of data by hand, it was almost impossible to have them modify their experimental design and retake a series of measurements. In some cases students actually forgot what they had done by the time they collected the data, made the measurements, and figured out what they meant. As a consequence, teachers often had to abandon inquiry based experimentation. Labs were designed where students made measurements in class, analyzed their results at home or in class the next day, and hopefully had "the right answer" for class discussions.

Things have changed. With the instantaneous feedback that computer-assisted data collection offers, students can experiment with techniques and ideas. Self discovery is an integral part of a probeware based, computer/CBL laboratory. Parts of the investigations we propose are prescribed, but much of the excitement will be generated from the open ended constructivist components of the laboratories. Students will be primed to self direct many of their inquiries. Students are encouraged to ask and then answer questions such as "how does the dissolved oxygen content of water upstream from a sewage treatment plant compare with the dissolved oxygen content downstream or what happens to the mineral content of soil if I drip acid rain through it? This technology enables students to pose questions and explore answers as never before possible.

Portable real-world data collection tools are a special bonus for biology. They will redefine the nature of field trips. When our students measure the quality of our watershed, they can monitor dissolved oxygen, temperature, water hardness, and pH at the site in a very few minutes. That frees them to participate in other activities and reduces their exposure to the chemicals found in many water testing kits.

Computer assisted data collection doesn't give students the answers, but it gives them a place to start finding answers. It directs them into a new type of learning and understanding.

Two types of data collection systems will be explored in this session:

  • Computer Interfacing, which provides a powerful workstation for data measurement and analysis in the classroom. Data and plots can be placed directly within spreadsheets for further analysis, into word processors for reports, e-mailed to others, or printed on paper.
  • Calculator Based Laboratory (CBL), which is portable, inexpensive, and wonderful for field studies. Since they are used in conjunction with a graphing calculator, analysis of data is at your fingertips.

Many ideas for integrating these tools into your biology classes will be explored. So join in! Learn new techniques and ways of thinking about biology labs! Share your ideas and experiences and let us learn from you!

We invite you to join us actively and frequently. Try out a few of the ideas found here and suggest many of your own. Ask questions. We're looking forward to working with you and learning from you!

Dave Masterman (1996)

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