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September 3, 2007
Volume 85, Number 36
pp. 66-68

Wired For Learning

Teachers are tapping into youths' digital savvy to take science education into the future

Noah U. Shussett

Teenagers have always been early adopters of new technology. Today, their MacBooks are replacing stacks of textbooks and their headphones connect to iPods rather a Walkman. She has a Motorazr phone to her ear; he's battling it out on a PlayStation Portable. They know where the Wi-Fi hotspots are and other places with free wireless Internet access, of course, because they're reading blogs, watching videos on YouTube, updating their pages on Facebook, downloading music from iTunes, and talking with a friend in Osaka, Japan.

Appleton Area School District
HIgh-tech Basler and students observe a graphical representation of different sounds.

Today's youth are growing up in a technologically advanced digital world; for them, high-tech gadgetry is normal. And some teachers are adapting and taking advantage of this trend to enable breakthroughs in the teaching and learning of science.

Among those are the teachers of Red Lion Area High School, home to roughly 1,850 students in grades nine through 12. Nestled near York, Pa., just beyond the bustling Philadelphia suburbs and Pennsylvania's Amish country, Red Lion has a small-town feel but a high-tech school system.

The Internet is their medium, says Jared Mader, a science teacher for nine years who was recently appointed district director of technology for the Red Lion Area School District. "These kids are multitaskers; they are IMing with one hand, texting with their cell phone in the other hand, and they're Skyping or chatting or whatever with voice over IP."

The medium has its own vocabulary. "IMing" (pronounced eye-em-ing) refers to instant messaging, a way of communicating with others over the Internet; "texting" is text messaging, a way of sending a message in text from your phone to another; and "Skyping" refers to the use of Skype, a peer-to-peer Internet telephony product with a growing base similar to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). There's also podcasting (broadcasting of a digital media file via the Internet with playback capabilities on portable media players), blogging (creating entries on a website that are displayed in reverse chronological order), and wikis (a collaborative website that can be directly edited by anyone with access to it).

"The way students learn today is different from the way we learned because today's students are able to process so much information at once," Mader says. "We would be doing a great injustice to them if, as teachers, we didn't start to tap into that."

For example, before computers became ubiquitous, when students were at home and got stuck on a homework problem, other than a phone call to a fellow student, they didn't have access to immediate help. Capitalizing on the presence of computers in at least every other U.S. household, Mader has started online discussions with materials that include his podcasts, whiteboard notes, and live discussion, all via the school district's website. "It's like evening office hours for high school students, if you will," Mader says. Some of the top chemistry and physics students have downloaded podcasts straight to their iPods, he says, so they have information from a live class to take with them for reference.

Mader is not alone in leveraging the digital savvy of students. He and his Red Lion colleague Ben Smith, a veteran physics teacher and fellow technology advocate, have put together training programs for teachers, presentations at local and national conferences, a string of journal articles, and, of course, websites to promote technology in the classroom.

It's not just about the subject matter, Smith says. He wants his students to learn how to communicate, solve problems, and collaborate, and he believes acquiring those skills may be helped, if not directly driven, by technology.

For example, Smith explains, students learn the importance of communication by creating their own podcasts, blogs, and wikis. He sees problem-solving in action when his students realize that a song by a heavy-metal band may not be the best soundtrack for a podcast discussing yesterday's class. He sees evidence of increased collaboration in their online discussions in chat rooms and on discussion boards that provide opportunities for students to converse about class topics among themselves and for him to also join in.

Halfway across the country and a bit more than an hour's drive from Lake Michigan is Appleton East High School, the professional home of the retiring president of the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers, Dale Basler.

Basler has a student website, which, he says, was an experiment when he created it during the beginning of the tech boom, when high-tech gadgets were still novelties. He aimed to get his students more involved and comfortable with technology by posting quizzes and class goals and objectives. He also allowed students and parents to have access to a grade portal on the site.

In the beginning, most students did not take advantage of tracking their grades because they were unfamiliar with the technology. Now, Basler says, everyone at his school who has a class website has seen increased communication and involvement from parents.

"I used to receive very few e-mails from parents of my students," Basler says. "Now, with their kid's information right in front of them on the computer, they just shoot me an e-mail." He is happy that parents contact him with concerns about assignments and exam scores early in the quarter, rather than waiting until the last week of classes. Posting information online lets parents monitor their child's progress throughout the year.

Meanwhile, at Upper Merion Area High School in Pennsylvania, Peter Vreeland, the head of the science department, has an entirely paperless classroom, a result of the Pennsylvania grant program, "Classroom for the Future." The program aims to get a "pure one-to-one" student-to-laptop ratio ("pure" means each student takes their laptop from class to class and home). It delivered a cart of 30 MacBooks to Vreeland's classroom as part of the $153,673 awarded to the school district.

The program enabled Vreeland to shift from traditional teacher-prepared assignments to more student-developed projects and ideas, eventually leading him to a paperless classroom. Vreeland distributes homework, notes, investigations, and quizzes on district servers. Students can submit their work or questions via the district network or e-mail. Students can also save their class notes on the server, which is backed up on a weekly basis as a precaution in case of a network crash.

"Now that everything is electronic, I can expect more of my students," Vreeland says. "I don't give as many tests as I used to in favor of more investigative activities and lab projects and reports." Students even videotape their work and turn it in as part of a lab report or as the lab report itself. "The data have become multimedia," Vreeland says.

When grading a laboratory report, Vreeland says, instead of looking at a data table, he looks at the experiment and hears what the students had to say about it while it went on. He believes he can get a better sense of the students' understanding by hearing them discuss what happened and by being able to "watch each group perform each part of the lab."

The students, in turn, are more productive. "The amount of work they did this year far exceeded any other year or amount of work they were doing, and they didn't feel like they were actually doing schoolwork," Vreeland says. "Students can choose the format in which they want to show me their work, and the students appreciate it more than the paper environment where they couldn't hand me a lab report with a movie in it."

This flexibility, notes Vreeland, raises the quality of work he receives from his students. With these tools, students are willing to put in more effort to polish their work, rather than just signing their names on lab sheets.

One Internet-based tool that seems on the way to becoming standard in schools is the podcast, an effective means for creating a portable classroom. Having class lectures and step-by-step problem solutions in podcasts allows students to catch up when they miss a class and lets them focus more of their attention on what's going on while in class. Podcasts can turn a bus ride home into a learning opportunity, Basler says. He puts a podcast of his classes on his website on Fridays, and by the time of his Monday class, a majority of his students have listened to it, he says.

Smith says he transmits his podcasts just moments after his classes are finished. "One day, I forgot to hit transmit from an earlier class, and my students came in two periods later asking where the podcast was," he recalls. Smith says he gets everything he can into a digital format for his students. In addition to class lectures, he also podcasts his notes so his students can work out problems at their own pace anywhere they please.

A device that digitally captures scribblings on a board is another nifty teaching aid, and two that are popular are the mimio and SMART Board. A mimio is a device that hangs on the side of a regular white board and captures pen strokes in a digital format. SMART Board does the same thing but requires a SMART marker and immediate uploading of the work to a computer. The mimio allows the notes to stay on the board all day long.

And there's more. Smith's students use handheld clickers instead of raising their hands, and he also posts grades online. In addition, he uses online word processing and spreadsheet utility sites, teacher-friendly blog sites, content management sites, feed aggregators, photo sharing and editing sites, and iMovie interfaces. Applications like screen-capture utilities (stills and videos), multimedia software, and project mapping utility are also in regular use.

Vreeland does not podcast his class, but he does record his board work with a SMART Board and places the file on the class server for his students to review. In the classroom, he uses Excel, Word Notebook—a virtual composition book also used by students for note-taking—and Grapher, a simple graphing program.

Despite all the gadgetry, all the teachers contacted for this story believe there is a breakthrough waiting to happen that is being stopped at the classroom doors. They refer to social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, which, for a number of reasons, many school districts are blocking.

"It's a shame," Smith says. "Wouldn't it be great if you could start a lab in Pennsylvania and it finishes in California or in China?"

Parents and teachers are concerned that such sites may expose children to danger. An online social network would be attractive to parents and fellow teachers alike if it were in a safe and controlled environment in the schools, Smith says, but right now decisionmakers are happy to just block them all.

"Facebook isn't a bad website, there are just bad people out there," Basler says. "The baby is really being thrown out with the bathwater on this one."

Vreeland is puzzled that these social networking sites are being dismissed by school districts, without any research and exploration of their benefits. "I won't prematurely dismiss them as something useless. In a sense, they are a way to communicate and get things done," he says. "The International Society for Technology in Education even has a MySpace page."

With technology moving at such a brisk pace, it may be easy to get carried away, a sentiment echoed by the four teachers. "We all may think kids are more tech-savvy than they are," Basler says. "Not every kid in my classroom is the tech-savvy neighbor who can reboot your computer."

One thing is clear: Technology in the high school science classroom—which both infinitely expands the possibilities of the classroom and captures student attention and interest—seems to be the next trend in "cool." Just don't tell the kids that "it's all about the learning," Smith says.

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Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

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