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STEM on the Cheap

RED phInstead of spending several hundred dollars on a handheld device that displays, graphs and analyzes the output of sensors, how does half that amount sound? The RED data collector from Really Easy Data Collectors costs $160 with a probe for measuring pH or blood pressure and can make outfitting a science classroom on a budget much easier.


Freebee Friday: Work and Play

YogiplayIf you’ve been burned suggesting kids visit certain educational Web sites only to find problems, YogiPlay has a great assortment of sites for reinforcing what the kids learn during the day. Aimed at 3- to 8-year olds YogiPlay has dozens of sites that vary from math to music. All have been tried out for appropriate material and educational usefulness. It has apps for a variety of tablets, including Androids and iPads and teachers and parents can monitor how much time kids spend using the software. Just register. 

Friday Freebee: Calculations without the Calculator

Tinspire3While a class full of graphing calculators can help kids understand math and tackle complex calculations, you don’t need a calculator anymore. Version 3.1 of the TI-Nspire CX Computer Software can do everything that the Nspire device can and is available for PC and Mac computers.  It comes with lots of lessons and images as well as a way to create and share your own material for the class to use. The program is free for teachers to use for three months and then costs $28 for a year’s license; a perpetual license comes with each calculator.


Document Close-Up

Actiview-522The latest document camera is the ActiView 522 from Promethean, which ups the ante with HD operations. The system has a 6X optical zoom, 30 frame-per-second video and a pair of LED lights on flexible gooseneck arms. On top of VGA and Composite video ports, the ActiView 522 has an HDMI connection, enough storage space for 240 high quality images and a great new feature if the device will be used by different teachers throughput the day: It can automatically erase any new items when the system is turned off.


Brightness without the Juice

TL30W_remoteWho says you need an expensive traditional lamp to get the brightness needed for a projector to cut it in the classroom? Not Optoma, which just introduced two projectors that use the company’s solid state EcoBright engine. Both put a WXGA image on a screen, but the TL30W uses 300 LEDs and the TL50W has 500 LEDs. The projectors deliver 300- and 500-lumens respectively, which is not a lot but should be fine with the lights off and the blinds down.

TL50W_Left_FrontBoth devices can connect to the typical inputs like VGA and HDMI ports as well as having a WiFi receiver for wireless connections. Each has the one-two punch of an SD card slot and a USB outlet and has built-in software for reading Office files directly. With a 3-year warranty, they sell for $550 and $650, respectively, and unlike traditional projectors, they will likely never need to have the lamp replaced, saving hundreds of dollars over its life.


TechLAB Shootout: 6 Document Cameras

Doc cams cYou can be forgiven for being just a little satisfied and complacent after successfully outfitting a school with rooms full of computers, projectors and a school-wide network to tie it all together. Unfortunately, your work isn’t quite done yet. Sooner or later, every effective digital classroom needs a document camera to project physical things – like a newspaper article, a page from an atlas and even the class pet.

Also known as visualizers, document cameras are for when you need to show the class something that goes beyond a digital image. It’s all about teaching with items that exist only in the real world. Every teacher has found that there are plenty of times when you either can’t find the right digital image of a flower petal or a video of sodium burning. That’s where a document camera comes in.

As the name implies, think of a visualizer as a self-contained digital camera that can turn anything from a piece of paper to a petri dish into a lesson that the entire class can see with a projector. While it might make sense to use a cell phone or digital camera, don’t bother.

That’s because a doc cam has something ordinary cameras don’t: a long arm that holds the camera steady so that it can be bent, rotated and swiveled to aim it at a variety of objects.


The good news is that document cameras are not all that expensive and you only need one per room or projector. In fact, many districts get one doc cam for every three or four classrooms that are shared, moved around and used as needed.

The bad news is that there are so many doc cams available that it’s hard to decide which is right for your classrooms. To cut through this, we’ve gathered together six of the newest, coolest and most capable document cameras available and ran them through the digital wringer at Scholastic’s TechLAB testing facility.

TechLab_webOver the course of 6-weeks, we subjected them to a variety of tests, doing to them what you would in a typical school day. After looking them over, measuring every aspect of their operations and trying out their key features, we used them in several mock lessons to see how they perform in the classroom.

These visualizers vary from large systems that take over a desktop to ones that are so small that they can be folded up and put in a drawer or a jacket pocket to take to the next classroom. They all have their own lighting for use in a darkened classroom, but they vary greatly as to how bright they get. They can all zoom in and out on a detail and have a variety of special effects, but the output of some look better than others. In other words, they all are able to put sheets of paper or physical objects on the classroom screen.

One does a cool educational trick. Using sophisticated 3-D modeling technology, Smart’s Document Camera 330 allows the teacher or student to manipulate a little cube whose moves are mirrored with a 3-D image on the screen. It can be an image of a flower, a geometric figure or just about anything and is the closest thing to classroom magic.

It stimulates curiosity and opens pathways of understanding, but cool as it is, many teachers and administrators will find this technology overkill. What they really want is the ability to inexpensively put a physical object on the classroom’s projection screen.

While none of these devices hit a grand slam, they are all solid hits. The best overall performer was Samsung’s SDP-860, which put the sharpest images on the screen and was extremely flexible in what it could show. It’s not perfect because the SDP-860’s black-on-black color scheme is hard to use in the dark.

Still, Samsung’s SDP-860 can turn just about anything into a lesson.






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Getting into College with the Help of the Web

Upclique_Screen_ShotRather than taking your chances with serendipity, UClique can help with customized program for students, their parents and high school guidance counselors. For kids, the service can connect them with the most appropriate school and track every aspect of the process, while their parents can see the status and the possibilities for getting financial aid. Schools can use it to manage the process and make sure every transcript, recommendation letter and test score gets sent.


Freebee Friday: Palz with Money

GeopalzA cool way to raise some cash for your school and get the kids to be more active is to get the school to use the GeoPalz online game. The game encourages participants to donate money towards the game’s upkeep and buy physical objects that have a pedometer inside. There’s a new object – from a tiny football to a ladybug – every three months and a school or district can get a cut of that cash flow. Basically, every step the student takes in the real world is recorded with the pedometer and get transferred into the GeoPalz online domain, getting them closer to a goal and prizes. Teachers can monitor each student’s progress and a whole class can take a virtual field trip with this online world.


The Incredible Shrinking Desktop

As notebooks get thinner, desktop PCs get smaller, because they continue to share components and designs with their smaller cousins. Two of the newest and smallest are HP’s Compaq Pro 4300 and Lenovo’s ThinkCentre 92P Tiny. Compared to hulking desktops, they are diminutive and use less power, but can have a big impact in the classroom.

HP Compaq 4300_tower_rightThe Compaq Pro 4300 Small Form Factor (SFF) is not only a self-contained PC that’s powered by either the current or next generation Intel Core processors, but it can hold up to 16GB of RAM as well as up to 1TB of hard disk space. Still, the 4300 Pro SFF is roughly the size of a textbook or dictionary. It’s got all the security and remote management of a desktop PC and there’s a great optional monitor stand that with a display creates the equivalent of an all-in-one computer.

By contrast, Lenovo’s ThinkCentre M92p Tiny is correctly named because it is even M92p Tiny golfsmaller, as is seen by the photo at the right with golf balls. It can be outfitted with an Intel vPro processor for enhanced security and remote manageability as well as mounted on the back of a monitor.  While it can drive up to four external monitors, including projectors, the Tiny PC uses much less power than traditional desktop PCs. Despite its size, the M92 Tiny uses an Intelligent Cooling Engine so that it keeps its cool without sounding like a 747 on take-off.


LAN Power

Catalyst_series_2960_bigSpeaking of POE, Cisco’s Enhanced POE equipment can deliver not just data but the ability to provide up to 20 watts per port, one-third more electricity than the standard 802.3 af-2003 protocol allows. Need even more juice? Some of Cisco’s switches, like the 2960 line, use the 802.3 at-2009 POE+ system to put as much as 30 watts of power through a regular old Category 5 cable.


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