Hands-on Digital Tech

from Technology & Learning

With a little creativity and a bit of technology, educators can inspire a lifelong love of science in their students—and raise achievement levels.

Traditionally, only the best-funded schools could afford to offer students the kinds of hands-on science experiences that "real life" scientists perform. But with the advent of digital technologies and portable, affordable handheld computing devices, real world investigations—that also address science standards—are now broadly accessible to students at all grade levels.

Digital Photos

Primary students begin to understand the structure and function in living systems when they take a daily picture of a plant against a meter stick. Each picture contains a sign with the date. The students start taking pictures the first day the seed breaks through the soil. They post their pictures in chronological order around the room. Primary school students often forget what has happened a few days earlier. But they can use the photos to analyze the various changes in the plant such as the number of new leaves, the change in color, and the number of days from a bud to the flower.

Word Processing

To help elementary school students develop a deeper understanding of the diversity of organisms, the teacher can create a word-processed chart that has the various characteristics of mammals going across and a list of animals going down the chart. The students individually identify which animal has which characteristics.

Digital Movies

Students develop an understanding about ecosystems when they plan a vegetable garden. They can listen to stories about gardens on the computer. They carefully read to determine how far apart seeds have to be, which plants can co-exist, and which plants have the same water requirements. They plan their gardens out in a spreadsheet or in a concept map program, and they can take digital movies of the garden as it grows from an empty plot to a community of ripe vegetables.

Probes and PDAs

Science teachers can assess how well their middle school students have developed understandings about environments by using a graphic organizer. Students may take a pretest to show they understand about stream life through its biological, physical, and chemical aspects. After they conduct an analysis of a local stream using digital motion and temperature probes and PDAs, they write up their findings. At the end of the unit, they complete a post-test graphic organizer that has the same categories as the pretest organizer. Teachers compare the two maps to determine the improved level of students' understanding.

Handhelds and probeware, such as the unit pictured here from Vernier Software, allow students to conduct experiments either in class or "in the field." Information can then be instantly relayed back to the desktop.

Freeze Frames

Middle school science students may demonstrate an understanding about science and technology when they analyze the images of their gravity experiment as captured by a digital movie they've made. They can pull out certain frames such as two objects being released at the same time, falling past a distance marker, and hitting the floor simultaneously. They can then import these into a graphics program and write information on the frames, then import these back into the movie program to produce an annotated explanation of the experiment about gravity.

Videoconferencing and Collaborative Tools

As middle school students participate in an Internet collaborative project on the natural-hazards component of "Science in Personal and Social Perspectives," they realize that human-generated natural hazards are a global issue. Students from three countries use videoconferencing or a social networking tool, including a wiki, to compare the pollution generated in the schools' cafeterias from such items as paper bags, plastic bags, food wrappers, and drink containers. Each group analyzes its weeklong observations and illustrates the findings through various digital spreadsheets. The groups study each other's spreadsheets for commonalities and differences, and then decide what actions they can take to minimize the schools' pollution. They can produce PowerPoint presentations or movies to illustrate the degree of cafeteria pollution and give suggestions on how to reduce it. The students can even show their pollution productions in the cafeterias during lunchtime.


When middle school students are engaged in learning about Earth in the solar system through simulations or models, they develop a deeper understanding. Students participate in a space flight simulation in which they duplicate what it is like to be on a space mission. They decide on the mission's purpose and the experiments to be conducted, who will be commanding mission control, and who will be the crew. Furthermore, they decide on the individual roles of the crew such as scientific officer and communication officer. The simulation seems real when the students view actual space images, hear the recorded voices of astronauts, and compare their mission with those that have taken place. There are free simulations available online, such as Orbiter pictured on this page.

Student Blogs

Through the use of student classroom blogs, e-mail, or small online communities, pairs of high school students can assess each other's ability to communicate scientific procedures and explanations. The teacher gives them a checklist of what is required for a lab report and the students evaluate each other's reports and electronically return them to their partners. If the report is delivered via blog, students can attach comments and suggestions. These peer assessments can be attached to the final lab report to show how suggested improvements have been implemented.


High school science students can demonstrate their understanding of atoms and molecules by producing videos on the cohesion of water. They can post these movies on a classroom Web site or on YouTube. Likewise, a science teacher can produce a video about alkanes—hydrogen and carbon compounds—and post it for his or her students. Students and teachers can use sources such as YouTube, AOL Video, or Unitedstreaming to show students the properties of matter in a visual manner.


Students can create a wiki about the global-warming aspect of the structure of the earth system. They might start off by watching An Inconvenient Truth. After they brainstorm the different dimensions of global warming, they research and present their views. Students can add to each other's knowledge through the use of specific examples, including visual ones. They can do research into climate changes in their own area that may or may not be due to global warming, and they can challenge each other's ideas or examples. This ever-changing cumulative knowledge about global warming documents the student's understandings about the earth system.

Net-Based Research

When high school students explore the nature of science, they can complete projects that integrate many technologies. If students complain about the huge number of flies in the science classroom, for instance, the teacher can ask them to design an experiment about flies in the school. As a class, they create a hypothesis and divide into groups to research and conduct the experiment. Group A researches the life cycle of a fly using the Internet and prepares a presentation on what conditions foster a large fly population. Group B designs a data collection spreadsheet instrument. Group C goes around the building to count flies using a spreadsheet on the class tablet computer. Group D documents the presence of flies by taking pictures. The groups combine their information to analyze the data and write up this research lab on flies. One group can create a PowerPoint presentation to visually show the experiment and its results. The class then videoconferences with an entimologist to discuss the findings.

Applying science to the real world through the use of technology not only engages students, but also makes them sophisticated researchers who have the collaboration and problem-solving skills that will serve them well in the digital workforce.

Harry Grover Tuttle is an instructor/project manager at Syracuse University.