Pasco’s Spark Element is for those who have suffered through supposedly compatible sensors, hardware and software only to find that you end up spending more time getting a classroom of gear to work than on experiments and labs with kids. That’s because the Element kit is specially designed just for school STEM projects and all the parts play nicely with each other.
Element is built around Pasco’s $200 Spark Element PS-3100, an Android tablet that essentially replaces Pasco’s more expensive and proprietary Spark Science Learning System handheld. The Element has a 7-inch screen and has been designed with school science classrooms use in mind. It’s not only tougher than an off-the-shelf tablet but is water resistant. It runs the latest Android 5.0 software and is not only thinner Fourier’s einstein Tablet+, but at 0.4- by 4.6- by 7.8-inches and 12.6-ounces, it weighs much less.
The Element slate easily fits into the palm of a fifth grader and comes with a soft cover that does a cool origami trick by folding into a stand that holds the screen at either 125- or 30-degrees. Inside, Element is typical Android slate fare with a 1.2GHz quad-core Atom processor, 1GB of RAM and 8GB of solid state storage, of which about 3GB is available for use. Its 7-inch touch-display can show 1,024 by 600 resolution, a big step up from the Spark’s 640 by 480 screen.
There’re Web cams front and back and the system has 802.11n WiFi networking as well as Bluetooth 4.0, which comes in handy when connecting to Pasco’s sensors. The tablet has a micro-USB, a micro-SD card reader and an audio connection.
Rather than using Android’s stock interface, the Element has its own look and feel. It is more tightly focused on science and data and gives children less of an opportunity to stray from the lesson. It comes with the company’s SparkVue and Spectrometry software, a nice file browser, a stop watch and a calculator, but the latter doesn’t graph functions. The biggest software shortcoming is that there’s no Web browser included. In fact, the only way to add apps is via Pasco’s online store, which is sparsely stocked at the moment.
At $200, Element it is a nice bargain for districts looking to set up a STEM classroom. It has built-in sensors for acceleration and sound, but lacks the Einstein Tablet+’s eight built in sensors that can measure anything from temperature and humidity to ultraviolet light.
What it can do is use one of Pasco’s connection hubs that provide access to the company’s more than 70 sensors. I looked at the $300 PS-3102 package that pairs the Element tablet with a Bluetooth AirLink 2 sensor hub. The Bluetooth connection box has its own battery so you’re not tied down to an AC outlet. It was able to run for over six hours on a charge.
As you might expect, the list of available sensors is deep and runs the gamut from an Alpha Beta Gamma Radiation Sensor to an XYZ Accelerometer/Altimeter. The company also has PASPort multi-sensor packs that can lower the cost and simplify installation by packaging several sensors into a snap-on package. For instance, the PASPort Weather/Anemometer sensor pack has meteorological items like wind speed, temperature and humidity, but it isn’t weatherproof.
The key to Element is that it uses the latest version of Pasco’s SparkVue software. It not only lets you select the presentation format and which of the available sensors to draw data from, but graphs the data on the fly in a variety of formats. It creates rich and vibrant plots that are ripe for analysis.
Able to lock the measurement settings, SparkVue can snap screen shots and save Journal entries for lab reports. The software can perform some moderately sophisticated analysis on the data or students can export it locally or to an online storage server for further work.
It’s surprisingly easy to get started. Just pick the type of graph you want, the sensors and the collection interval. Then, press the play button and the data starts flowing with every data point plotted on the graph. It can be automatically stopped after a set duration or when any of the sensors reach a certain value.
Overall, the tablet’s performance is adequate for its purposes, but often lags for a second or more to when moving between its apps or calling up a new experiment. It’s particularly slow when saving a graph as a Journal entry, so it requires a bit of patience.
Everything works well together, making for a quick set up and data acquisition, but Pasco doesn’t sell a case to store the gear (or better yet a classroom’s worth) when it’s not in use. The company provides a good assortment of labs that can augment any chemistry, physics or general science classroom as well as selling $49 lab manuals with between 25 and 38 activities as well as a CD of student material. To help teacher and student get started, there are thousands of lab documents preloaded on the system and dozens of online videos for general and specific tasks to help you get started.
All told, Element is one of the easiest, fastest and most satisfying ways to start up a STEM lab for teaching the next generation of scientists.
Pasco Element PS-3100
+ Complete hardware and software package
+ Good variety of sensors
+ Excellent graphing and analysis software
+ Curriculum and labs
+ Unique cover/stand
- Requires wired or wireless connection hub
- No storage case