Best classroom technology & training for high school science

In June 2000, Ted Kraver, a software engineer and chairman of the Arizona Learning Technology Partnership, Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona, asked for a vision statement from high school teachers.
The bottom line:

  1. Computers and probeware are the most important technology.
  2. If teachers had to choose between computers and student-group size whiteboards, they would choose whiteboards, because student discourse is absolutely crucial.

A post to the modeling listserv for high school physics teachers who use Modeling Instruction:

Date:    Tue, 6 Jun 2000

From:    Jane Jackson <jane.jackson@ASU.EDU>

Subject: Classroom technology/envision the future

Imagine that it’s five years ahead in the future. Imagine that:

  • Your science and math departments receive up to $2,000,000 to use for classroom technology of your choice, as well as ample staff development and skilled technical help to install and maintain it. Your entire school already has the latest in telecommunications, information access, hardware, etc.
  • All your science and math colleagues have previously had plentiful in-depth professional development on how to use classroom technology effectively, a la Modeling Instruction.
  • Cutting-edge software is available to buy.  Also, cutting-edge probeware.

How would you use the money?

David Hestenes and I have been asked to address these questions in a visionary paragraph. It will be incorporated into a vision statement to provide guidance for the “Arizona Partnership for the New Economy”, a state governmental task force.

In a later post, teachers were asked to distinguish among these four types of classroom technology: probeware, curriculum software, simulation software, and internet-related technology.

In 2000, 400 teachers nationwide subscribed to the modeling listserv. We received ten pages of responses. Here is a summary that includes representative quotes. Complete responses are available by request to

Best technology and training: RESPONSES FROM HIGH SCHOOL PHYSICS TEACHERS NATIONWIDE who use Modeling Instruction:

Teachers envisioned that an expert science teacher would have daily release time from teaching duties to coach and mentor other science and math teachers in effective use of classroom technology; this resident expert is sent to conferences yearly to update his/her expertise. The school has technical staff, including someone to mentor students needing help with technology.

A teacher-leader wrote, “I take every opportunity I can to remind people that science has been using “technology” ever since Galileo picked up the telescope.  Science has a long and successful history with thoughtfully incorporating “new technologies” into its efforts, so scientists are good people to ask (better than “computer experts,” for example) for advice regarding all kinds of technologies.”

Teachers agreed that science teachers will continue to use probeware as the backbone of their computer classroom technology. “It has the most beneficial effect on students’ learning, for the ability to collect and analyze data about physical behavior profoundly transforms a student’s ability to “see” nature.” “Technology cannot replace teaching but it does replace the mindless drudgery of recording lab data, transforming it, and plotting it on a graph. Even the slowest students can perform real labs; students get a lot of good data quickly so that they can learn science instead of boredom.”

A teacher who is adept with technology wrote, “The bottom line is that learning will still take place via interactions:  student-student, student-environment, and student-teacher. The technology will never effectively replace the “classroom” (that is to say “human contact”) experience. If I had to choose (glad I don’t!) between the computers and whiteboards in my classroom, I would choose whiteboards. When I’m asked about the most important technology in my classroom, I usually pull out a whiteboard marker.”

That same technology-proficient teacher envisioned: “Every student will have a very small laptop – an electronic notebook–something like the portable notebook that Apple released a few years ago, the eMate.  It will be small, powerful and capable of using keyboard, trackpad and digital pen input.  They will be cheap, and as prolific as the TI-83.  It will have wireless connection to various networks – the internet and otherwise.  They will have the computing power of today’s most powerful desktop/tower computers. Science classes will have digital lab interfaces which will link to the student’s notebooks, allowing data to be collected and stored in the notebooks for analysis.  Students will use software to analyze data and put it into a meaningful form.  The notebooks will allow students to see simple simulations of phenomenon that they can’t experience in the lab (like stellar evolution), or access data from more powerful technologies that can’t use the interfaces (like electron microscopes, particle accelerators or telescopes). Most importantly, the notebooks will allow students to prepare presentations and interactive experiences for each other.  They will share what they have learned with each other, and we will be facilitators.” (Another experienced teacher, in a private school where each student has a laptop, strongly disagreed, saying “Whiteboards work well for this; laptops do not. Whiteboards = interaction.  Laptops = interference.”)

 (Another teacher added, “Replace ‘notebook’ with ‘whiteboard’ and you have what is being done today in most modeling classrooms. Check out a ‘Smartboard’, the projection of a computer screen onto an interactive whiteboard. I have used a Smartboard and it has great potential.)

Another technology-proficient teacher-leader wrote: “I envision a set of three large flat video screens in the front of my classroom — like three PowerPoint presentations going simultaneously. One screen for assignments, announcements, topics for the day. One screen for notes, electronic chalkboard.  One screen tied to computers in the classroom (networked). This would be great for showing notes, demos with ULI’s and probes, and the internet. Any group’s data, graphs, or other information could be pulled up on the video screen to “whiteboard” in class rather than putting it on an actual whiteboard. Students will have a laptop computer “device” much like kids have their TI graphing calculators.  Rooms could be outfitted with infrared sensors for network connections. Each time a student comes to class and turns on their laptop, they send a signal to the network.  Their attendance is recorded, and access to internet, lab simulations, data collection software, and office type software are made available.  With probes connected to the computers, students collect data, analyze it and write up lab reports, all online.  Lab reports, worksheets, and tests could all be downloaded and uploaded on the laptops. The most important piece of the classroom situation should always remain:  the student – teacher interaction.  Questioning, discourse, class post-lab discussions, etc. are crucial and cannot be replaced by technology.”

Teachers agreed that we must minimize the “push button” aspects of technology and maximize the “how does it work” aspects. “Technology should give instant results to student-instigated experiments. However, there is no substitute for classroom discourse.”

Finally, amplifying the first summary paragraph on best technology training, an expert teacher and workshop leader wrote, “I and many of the modelers I’ve worked with may be a relative expert on using technology, but I know of very, very few who receive the release time necessary to coach and mentor other math and science teachers.  Providing that release time within the school day on a regular basis rather than one shot in-services would be more effective than adding more technology. The one thing I have found is that creating a group of technology users who can demonstrate to their administrators and support staff that they are using their available technology to its limits are capable are making the strongest case for more and better technology. The key is having a group of teachers who can demonstrate they are using what they’ve got. This is one of the things modelers are best at.” Another teacher added, “even with training, I find it hard to have all the proficiency in technology to meet the demands of all the other teachers; math and science.” A third teacher replied, “I agree that the key in technology training is a group effort by the team of [science teacher] experts.”