Real-Time Science

4/15/2005 By: Mike Brown

Collecting data to support experimental questions, the basis of scientific inquiry, gives kids a valuable hands-on experience with science. While in the past data collection could involve hours of tedious (and possibly inaccurate) observation, today's measurement probes, software, and connecting hardware — collectively known as "probeware" — allow users to quickly gather highly accurate data points. The technology lets students become data manipulators instead of data gatherers, freeing them to concentrate on such higher-order skills as developing hypotheses and drawing conclusions.

In this review, we've chosen to look at some of the newest offerings from the leaders in classroom data collection, worth noting for their ease of use, the increased power of the software, and the simplicity of design. All the programs include high-quality curriculum guides, which give teachers the opportunity to design meaningful hands-on lab experiences for their students.

EasyTemp/EasyData for TI-84 Plus
(Vernier and Texas Instruments)
Many students today are coming to science and math classes carrying TI graphing calculators, and Vernier has expanded the devices' functionality with an EasyTemp probe and EasyData software for the TI-84 Plus Silver Edition. An exciting new feature of this calculator is its USB port, to which the EasyTemp probe can connect directly. The USB port also means students and teachers can print from the device to a variety of USB-enabled printers.

Vernier EasyTemp with TI-84 Plus

Even if students are not able to fully appreciate the multifunction ability of the calculator from a mathematical standpoint, they should have no problem collecting temperature data. Vernier's EasyData software, which comes pre-installed on the TI-84 Plus, immediately detects the connected EasyTemp probe and displays the temperature reading. The menu system is easily navigated by using the plotting/graphing buttons along the bottom of the screen. Experiments can be designed to collect data at specific intervals, or users can just begin the process themselves. The information is graphed in real time.

Like other handheld programs reviewed here, the EasyData software offers minimal data analysis capabilities. Students can only examine the graph and the individual data points on the handheld. The strength of the software, though, is that it is very easy to use; students of all ages will be able to immediately collect data.

Schools that have already invested in other TI science tools will also appreciate EasyData's interoperability with the CBL 2, LabPro, CBR, CBR 2, and EasyLink.

Go!Temp/Logger Pro 3
(Vernier)
Vernier Go!Temp and Logger Pro 3 software are two simple products designed to work right out of the box. The low-cost, high-quality Go!Temp probe connects directly to a computer via a USB cable. Included with the probe is Logger Lite software, a simple data recording and analysis tool that's ideal for elementary students.

But older students interested in advanced data analysis will enjoy using the probe with Vernier's Logger Pro 3. This software, which won a Technology & Learning Award of Excellence in 2004, puts advanced data analysis at users' fingertips. Students can draw their predictions on the graph before data is collected as well as dip into statistics, linear fit, curve fit, and integrals. They can also create multimedia lab reports, inserting QuickTime videos of experiments alongside data tables and graphs. Budget-crunched schools will especially appreciate Vernier's generous site license, which allows a whole school to gather and analyze data with a single purchase of Logger Pro.

HOBO Data Logger
(Onset Computer Corporation)
Onset Computer Corporation's family of HOBO data loggers can be used in a wide variety of classroom and field situations. The U12 unit evaluated for this review contains built-in temperature, relative humidity, and light sensors as well as a port to plug in an external temperature sensor — all in a small, lightweight container designed for indoor use.

Setting up the data logger is easy: connect the HOBO to a computer via the USB cable, then decide how many sampling points to take and how often. (It's worth noting here that the HOBO is the only data logger we reviewed that can be programmed and left for an extended sampling run.) Upload the data to a computer and the accompanying software immediately displays data as a graph as well as in tables that can be opened in a spreadsheet program.

The simplicity of setup does come at a price: unlike other desktop products reviewed here, the HOBO software allows only the minimum in processing. It calculates the number of samples and the maximum, minimum, and average of measurements taken. Classes looking to do more serious statistical analysis will need a separate spreadsheet program to manipulate data.

The software is functional, though, and teachers looking for integration tips can consult a companion Web site with more than 200 high-quality lesson plans supporting the use of HOBO sensors in all grades. Schools will also appreciate Onset's loaner program, in which students or teachers who submit a good idea for a scientific inquiry will receive a set of data loggers to complete the experiment.

Xplorer GLX
(PASCO Scientific)
The PASCO Xplorer GLX data logger is a single handheld unit with a rechargeable battery that provides flexibility and power for scientific investigation. With four PASCO Pasport ports (allowing users to connect a wide variety of Pasport probes), two temperature probe ports, a voltage sensor port, and a sound/ microphone port, the device is a standalone science lab that kids can carry with them in the field. Schools can further expand the GLX's functionality with PASCO Science Workshop sensors (provided they purchase a special adapter) or USB-based probes, which plug into the Xplorer's two USB ports. Those same ports also allow students to connect a keyboard for note taking or print to a variety of USB-enabled printers.

PASCO Xplorer GLX

The Xplorer GLX can also be used as an intermediary, connecting the probes to the computer via the USB port to allow students to immediately analyze and interpret the results of their experiments with PASCO's Data Studio software. In this configuration, Data Studio directly controls the probes through the GLX, enabling real-time graphing and advanced statistical analysis from the computer. Students will enjoy using Data Studio's visually appealing interface, while teachers will appreciate the option to assign prepared experiments or create their own with PASCO's electronic workbooks.

The rich features of this device — including data modeling, histograms, and scientific calculations — mean that younger learners may find it difficult to operate quickly. However, students in middle and high school will be able to maximize its considerable capacity for scientific experimentation and data analysis.

Chemistry ImagiLab
(ImagiWorks)
With the Chemistry ImagiLab, ImagiWorks builds upon palmOne's mobile computing power to create a complete mobile testing laboratory. The package includes sensors and activities specific to the chemistry classroom and an ImagiProbe LC, a very small, battery-powered interface box that allows users to connect sensors to the handheld. The basic ImagiLab includes temperature, pH, and gas pressure sensors, though more probes can be purchased.

Software installation is quick and easy, because the ImagiProbe software is included on both a secure digital card for the handheld and on CD for the computer — eliminating the need for a HotSync during setup.

The included probes for the most part worked well right out of the box; though in the first trial, readings from the temperature probe weren't very accurate. Thankfully, ImagiWorks probes can be recalibrated mathematically within the software, so it was only a few extra steps to more accurate readings.

Students will find it fairly easy to create a lot of trials and investigations. ImagiWorks software makes maximum use of the Palm OS, with drop-down menus operated by the stylus and note windows that accept input from Graffiti handwriting recognition software or an external keyboard. The software also builds on the Palm HotSync function, transferring data between the handheld and the computer so that both are current. Because data on the handheld is not erased, students in the field can easily compare all of their recorded trials to the data they're currently collecting.

Data analysis on the handheld is minimal. Students will only be able to examine individual data points and change the zoom size of the graph; an in-depth analysis requires a laptop or desktop with a spreadsheet program. The ImagiWorks application captures and displays data as a text file and, depending on the length, as a Web page — great for classes that want to post data on a Web site within minutes of collection.

Mike Brown is an educator and the director of the Coastal Studies and Technology Center at Seaside High School, Seaside, Ore.

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