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Coding with Dash and Dot

Wonder workshopWhen I played with and learned with Wonder Workshop’s Dot and Dash robots, I was disappointed that it was long on teaching potential but short on actual curriculum items. That has changed a lot with the introduction of 21 common core and NGSS aligned lesson plans for K-through-fifth graders. They can help a class of kids (and teachers for that matter) master the basics of programming and even submit lessons of their own for others to use.

Start to Finish STEM

Element aPasco’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.

Element cThere’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.  

PS2011_330_135574As 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.

Sparkvue screenOverall, 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. 


Element b

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

Snap Together STEM

Tablet_moduleIf countless sensor cables are turning lab tables into a warren of wires, NeuLog has a new concept in STEM. Rather than each sensor having its own cable, the system is built around black plastic boxes that can literally be snapped together. There are about 50 sensors available that range from those that measure oxygen or carbon dioxide to ones for temperature and light. They all connect to a wired or wireless hub, allowing any combination with a single cable or a wireless connection.

B-41_wnThe company has logging, graphing and analysis software that works with PCs, Macs and a variety of phones and tablets. If that weren’t enough, the company’s Web site has a nice assortment of curriculum. There are instructions and videos for a bunch of experiments, including how pendulums work, measuring static electricity and lung capacity measurements.

Hot Stuff

Flir_Phone6_front_camera_WithThermal_V1[1]Flir takes infrared and heat imaging to a new level with its Flir One device. Like the Seek Thermal, it snaps onto an Android or iOS phone or tablet and can show brilliant images of what a flame, hot pipe or exothermic reaction in the chemistry lab look like. It not only has its own battery and ups the resolution to 640 by 480 pixels but the Flir One has cool software for superimposing its camera’s output over the heat map as well as for creating panoramas, videos or time-lapse sequences. On the downside, its temperature range is more limited at -20 to 120-degrees Centrigrade. Still, at $250, every school should have at least one or two.

3-D with a Twist

Sprout 3D Capture Stage with sea shell (left)HP’s Sprout 3-D workstation can turn any small object into a 3-D file ready for digital manipulation and eventual 3-D printing. Just put the object on the optional Capture Stage and let Intel’s RealSense camera take over. The stage’s turntable holds any small object at a 15-degree angle and rotates it so the camera can snap sequential pictures and produce a realistic 3-D model of the object; it costs $300. The next step is adding on Dremel’s 3D Idea Builder 3-D printer and other devices.

Build your Own PC

Kano-2There’s no better way to understand how computers really work than to build one, and that’s the idea behind Kano. The kit includes all the hardware and software you’ll need to build a fully functioning computer. It starts with a Raspberry Pi2 computer board with a 900MHz, ARM Cortex A7 processor and 1GB of RAM. It has slots for plugging in a screen or projector as well as mini-USB for power and includes a small USB keyboard with a touch pad.

Kano-3The Kano computer is so small that it fits in the palm of your hand and there are visually oriented building instructions. Once the system is working it can be used with a variety of open-source (and free) software, including Python and Scratch. There’s even an online place for classes and kids to share their best work or ask questions. It even comes with a couple of sheets of stickers for personalizing the computer. It costs $150, but schools can get a 30 percent discount, making it the best bargain in tech today.

Freebee Week: Robots Get their Due

RoboWeek_banner_728x90 (2)It’s still a few days away, but the 6th National Robotics Week is almost here. Sponsored by iRobot, it is a cybernetic celebration with a full schedule of activities in every state, including everything from how-to classes to robot contests. You can participate, even if you can’t get to one of the many events with online events and lots of in-class activities, like workbooks, apps and lesson plans.

Freebee Friday: Chromebook STEM connection

Chromebook vernierYou can now use any Chromebook to log, graph and analyze data from many Vernier’s digital sensors. The Graphical Analysis app collects the data and performs linear regression analysis and graphs the data points. An update this spring will add compatibility for the company’s Go series of wireless probes.

Robots Clean Up

Create_tetheriRobot is justifiable known for its autonomous vacuum cleaners, but iRobot Create 2 takes it into the realm of the classroom to teach programming. Based on the company’s Roomba hardware, the $200 Create 2 looks like the flat disc that scurries around on the floor sucking up dust bunnies, comes already assembled and is ready for teaching. Using the Create Open Interface, kids can program it to make basic moves. In addition to instructions and lessons to make two projects, iRobot supplies 3-D files for those schools with a 3-D printer to make extra parts and options for the robot. 


The Slate with Senses

Einstein tablet + bWhy take your chances by mixing and matching STEM equipment from different vendors when you can get it all with Fourier’s einstein Tablet+. Rather than just another Android slate, the Tablet+ stands out because it is stuffed full of sensors and includes powerful data acquisition and analysis software.

At 0.7- by 7.8- by 5.5-inches, the blue and black Tablet+ weighs in at just over a pound, making it one of the thickest and heaviest Android slate with a 7-inch screen. In fact, it is nearly twice as thick and 5-ounces heavier than Acer’s Iconia One 7.

Comparisons of size and weight miss the point of the Tablet+ because it is like no other slate on the market. It’s as if it were designed by science and math teachers to take advantage of the latest in STEM technology. The tablet has 8 built-in digital sensors that range from GPS, microphone, a three-axis accelerometer, ultraviolet and visible light to temperature and humidity and – with the included finger cuff – heart rate. Some of the actual sensors – like those for visible and UV light – are arranged along the top edge of the slate and visible through a window, which can be a great teaching aid in and of itself.

There’re also four ports that work with a wide variety of Fourier add-on sensors. The Tablet+ can accommodate any of 65 different devices, including a colorimeter, magnetic field sensor, rain gauge and a variety of voltage sensors. They self-identify and take just a second or two to be ready, but fall short of the more than 80 sensors that work with the LabQuest 2.

Einstein tablet + cThe tablet doesn’t have the latest Android 5.0 software but does quite well with the 4.1.1 version. It all comes together with Fourier’s MiLab app, which can take in the sensor readings, display them live and help analyze them. It can take in up to 100,000 samples per second, matching the data collection abilities of Vernier’s LabQuest 2. MiLab displays the data as a spreadsheet, graph or dial gauge, or all three at once, although it can get quite crowded on the screen.

Once the data is in place you can look for trends with its data analysis software that can map the numbers to a linear, exponential or polynomial function as well as calculate its derivative. When you’re ready you can export the data and take a screen shot that can be dropped into a lab report.

In addition to the expected Android apps, the tablet also includes a trial version of Radix’s Smart Class Student and Teacher apps. This nifty minimalist classroom management system lets the teacher take control of the class’s slates, chat and send a file to students. At any time, the teacher can set up a plain blank screen to work on.

A big step forward for Fourier is its einsteinWorld, an online store for getting STEM content. There’re lots of in-class activities and the Activity Store has a bunch of free apps that teachers have put together. The pickings are slim at the moment, but this could develop into a valuable source for teachers.

Inside the tablet is a dual-core Rocket processor that runs at 1.2GHz, 1GB of RAM and 4GB of solid state storage; at any time you can add a micro-SD car that holds up to 32GB. Its 7-inch screen can show 976 by 600 resolution, which pales in comparison to the One 7’s 1,280 by 800 or the Nexus 7’s 1,920 by 1,200. Plus it can work with up to five independent touches, rather than the expected ten.

Screenshot_2014-10-23-14-41-20It’s got all the creature comforts of modern computing, from Bluetooth and WiFi to a headphone jack and an HDMI port for driving a projector or large monitor. There’re cameras front (640 by 480 resolution) and back (1,920 by 1,080 resolution) for documenting lab work with stills or a video. Unfortunately, the system is charged with a proprietary AC adapter and plug, rather than a conventional USB one.

The einstein Tablet+ is a reasonable performer that won’t let you down. It scored an 18,967 on the Antutu Performance 5 benchmark, putting it just ahead of the One 7 and well behind the Google Nexus 7’s class-leading 26,069. In other words, it won’t lag when you’re capturing 1,000 temperature readings a second and it is an excellent general purpose tablet for kids to do Web research and write up labs on. Its 5,000 milli-amp hour battery was able to run for 4 hours and 8 minutes on a charge, just enough for a school day of on and off use.

If your school isn’t into Androids, Fourier also has the LabMate+, a self-standing plug-in device for PCs, Macs, iPads and even Linux-based computers. It has six sensors built-in (heart rate, temperature, humidity, pressure, UV and visible light) as well as four ports for other Fourier sensors. The best part is that it can connect via a USB cable or Bluetooth. It costs $199.

Either way, Fourier Education has your class covered with integrated sensors for science and science classes. While its $299 price tag puts it above its Android peers, none of them have built-in sensors for creating a chemistry or physics lab. Plus, it’s on a par with the $329 Vernier LabQuest 2 interface which has fewer built-in sensors and isn’t a general-purpose computer for all sorts of other schoolwork.

All this makes getting einsetin Tablet+ slates just about as smart as its namesake scientist.


Einstein tablet + a

Fourier Education einstein Tablet+


+ Built-in STEM sensors

+ Full Android 4.1.1 tablet

+ Data acquisition and analysis software

+ Four ports for external sensors that work with 65 external sensors

+ Online services


- Big and heavy

- Non-USB charging

- Low-resolution display




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