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FRIDAY FREEBEE: Drawing on Software

Paint net There’s nothing like teaching a child that a computer can help them draw and nothing like not paying a penny for the software. Paint.net is one of my favorite freebees because it can help anyone be a digital artist without the pain of learning PhotoShop. There’s a powerful interface that allows students to move among several images, apply filters, crop and correct the color, brightness and contrast.  At any time you can undo an unlimited number of actions if you have second thoughts, but the program only works with PCs.


Creating a Real Chemical Lab

MiniGC Not too long ago only colleges, research institutes and chemical analysis labs could afford to get and use a gas chromatograph, but Vernier buts one within reach of any chemistry classroom. Vernier’s Mini GC miniaturizes the hardware to something that can sit on top of a lab bench and be moved between classes when needed. Based on technology from Seacoast Science, the Mini GC is smaller than most scanners, yet is fully capable of heating up a small sample of a variety of substances and then analyzing it for a variety of organic compounds with its tiny analysis chip. It connects to a PC or Mac via a USB cable and works with Vernier’s Logger software. The Mini GC costs $1,750 and comes with everything needed to get started, including 5 recommended labs, from indentifying unknown compounds to performing fractional distillation.

A PC Wheelie

Infinity_6030_pop_ho Is traditional computer furniture too constricting for students or staff in wheelchairs? Think about making the computer furniture adapt to the user and not the other way around. The ADAS Infinity 6030 table is not only adjustable up and down from 27 to 39 inches to accommodate any wheel chair but it is powered by a silent motor. The table top is available in either plastic laminate or wood veneer and has sturdy edge banding as well as locking casters and a variety of optional add-ons. The table measures 60- by 30-inches and costs $1,497.


The Wiki World in your Hand

Wr_hand1_big What if you could put everything that’s available on the online Wikipedia encyclopedia into something that fits into the palm of your hand for instant access? Well, that’s exactly what Openmoko has done, and its WikiReader has the power to change the way we think about research. The $99 WikiReader has more than 3 million articles on everything from, well, A to Z. All the content sits on an SD card, which can be updated for free so you don’t need to be tethered to a PC or a wireless network. It runs on a pair of AA batteries and the device’s monochrome screen reacts to the touch of the finger to activate links to other material. There are three ways to navigate with the WikiReader: Search, History and – my favorite – Random, which picks articles for you to read.
The best part is what the device can do for children throughout the world. For every WikiReader sold, the company will donate one to the non-profit Rural Education and Development Global (Read Global) organization for distribution to their library and resource centers in India, Nepal and Bhutan.

Lab in a Bag

39gs Teaching kids how to get, record and analyze data in real world experiments is the whole idea behind science labs, but outfitting a classroom with a full set of computers, lab sensors and software can run $75,000 or more. That’s a tall order for even the best funded districts these days and out of reach for the rest. That’s why I’m very impressed with HP’s Mobile Calculating Lab, which does the equivalent for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum for much less.

By basing the equipment on HP’s 39gs graphing calculator rather than a PC, the costs of outfitting an entire STEM classroom can be reduced without cutting into what can be taught. Plus, you get a set of high-end graphing calculators for other assignments and projects.

The 39gs calculator itself is ruggedly built and should last for years of labs, graphing projects and more. Along with a basic set of 10 sensors, a data conversion box, you get activity and instruction books for $850. It’s all packaged in a hard plastic case, making it easy to store and move the equipment from room to room as needed. There are dozens of additional sensors available from Fourier, from acceleration to voltage.

At $850, the price of the kit is less than most schools spend on a raw PC by itself. Calculators alone cost $70 each, so assuming that kids work in pairs, a 30-student class would cost less than $14,000 to outfit, one-fifth that of a PC-based set up. 

The key is that all the lab’s data acquisition and analysis is done on the calculator. It might seem a little awkward at first, but the 39gs and the StreamSmart 400 data conversion device work well together. The box can accept up to four inputs from a variety of Fourier sensors, including devices to measure temperature, distance, pressure and force. It can accept up to 5,700 measurements a second although the calculator’s memory will quickly fill up at this rate. Setting the system to between 10 and 20 readings a second works well.

On top of the standard suggested labs, like monitoring endo- and exothermic reactions and proving that Newton’s laws of motion still apply, I made up my own. I connected the light and temperature probes and set it up to capture two channels of data to monitor the setting sun. The two line graphs showed the trends and I was able to massage and analyze the data with the 39gs.

As good and economical as it is, the Mobile Calculating Lab has some rough edges. For one, there’s no way to export the data from the calculator to a PC for writing up a lab. HP is working on the software for this.

MCL The low-resolution monochrome screen can’t compare with even the cheapest notebook display for plotting graphs and it would have been a big help if the calculator had a built-in stop watch for timing lab events, such as how long it takes a ball to drop from the roof.

It’s a small thing, but the cable that connects the StreamSmart 400 data acquisition box with the calculator is too easy to put in upside down. It doesn’t do any damage to the devices but makes the calculator’s screen start wildly blink until it’s corrected

While there are different activity books for middle- and high-school classes, this product comes into its own when teachers share their experiences and tips on HP’s Teacher Experience Exchange. In this way, they learn from each other. To my thinking, the Mobile Calculating Lab is the best way to introduce children to the world of science and technology – by actually doing it.

HP Mobile Calculating Lab
HP 39gs Calculator

+ Inexpensive way to outfit STEM classroom
+ Easy to move from room to room
+ Small, light and rugged
+ Good data analysis and graphing

- No stop watch
- Too easy to put cable in upside down
- No PC transfer software


The Calculator that Beams

TI-NspireNavigator_rightcol Calculators are for calculating, right? Well, increasingly they are the center of science, technology and engineering education and the TI-Nspire Navigator can wirelessly connect a classroom of calculators with each other and the teacher. Each student needs a wireless cradle that snaps onto the bottom of the company’s TI-NSpire and CAS handhelds. The focal point is the TI-Nspire Navigator access point, which creates an in-class network of calculators. The system can do everything from making sure that every kid knows how to take square roots to giving quizzes and taking polls. You can get a free demo of the system.


Soar like a Digital Eagle

GliderScn2 Why try to teach a physics class on the aerodynamics of how planes fly by writing lift, thrust and drag equations on the board when students can interactively design their own aircraft, and explore these parameters for themselves. Gliders by Design from Seeds Software lets students start with a variety of materials, like balsa wood, foam or paper and design their own imaginary digital craft. With a little help from the program, they can create their own wings, fuselage length and thickness, and then simulate its flight – all without cutting or gluing anything. The program works with Macs and PCs, and costs $45.

Educating the Educators

Discover wilkes If you’ve been thinking about getting a Masters Degree to hone your classroom skills, but don’t have the time or college nearby to take the needed classes, think about doing it on your lunch hour, at home at night and on the weekends. That’s exactly what you can do with a joint continuing education course for getting a M.S. in Instructional Media run by Discovery Education and Wilkes University. It’s all done with7-week online classes that explore the latest in digital technology and instructional media. It’s accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

FREEBEE FRIDAY: Climate Change Coming into Focus

Climate connections With the world’s attention focused on the Copenhagen talks on climate change, it’s the perfect time to explore the scientific and human dimensions of the problem at the BBC’s Climate Connections page. On top of a survey of the effects of global warming on 8 places in the world and the different needs and political strategies of the world’s nations dealing or ignoring it, the Climate Connections page has a Q&A and a story about those who deny that climate change is a big deal. My favorite is the section on different techniques for reducing our effect on the weather, from electric cars in Israel to rainwater harvesting in Zimbabwe. Rest assured, the pages will cover President Obama’s speech and summarize any results of the climate conference.


FREEBEE FRIDAY: Thinking Very Big

Building big What better physics class can there be than to look at and discuss how large buildings and massive public works projects are designed and built. WGBH’s Building Big series not only does this but has a great Web page with lots of instructional extras, including an educator’s guide. The site doesn’t have the full shows so you’ll have to ask students to watch them on TV at night. The site has an excellent online lab that explains and explores the forces and stresses that structures experience as well as a database of the world’s biggest structures.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Tech Tools are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.