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.
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