There’s no shortage of online science curriculum, but the upcoming Planet3 looks very promising. It’s a nature and physical sciences site aimed at middle school science classrooms that is led by Tim Kelly, the former president of National Geographic and it uses the planet as a way to teach not only the expected STEM subjects, but the arts as well. Everything will be NGSS-based and will use games and interactivity to lure students into its content while having them use data and observations to build their own knowledge base. Look for it later this year, but you can see a preview of it right now.
Play can quickly turn into a physics lesson of how to build a bridge, tower or even a tablet stand. It’s all thanks to the innovative Brackitz connectors, plastic clips that connect wooden strips, allowing kids to explore their inner-builder. Pricing ranges from a $30 starter kit to the 400-piece Building Center that comes in a plastic crate on wheels and costs $230.
Put away your homemade physics-class projectile launching gear because PASCO has a better alternative. The Mini Projectile Launcher and Smart Gate kit has everything you'll need to let kids test a variety of projectiles and measure their aerodynamic qualities. In addition to a pair of photo gates for accurate velocity readings, the kit lets students adjust the angle of launch. It all clamps to a tabletop and costs $289.
If you thought the STEM world couldn’t support two small infrared sensors that snap onto a phone or tablet, you (and I) would be dead wrong. That’s because FLIR, the leading designer and manufacturer of infrared products, has a slightly different take on visualizing thermal energy. The $250 FLIR One is a little more expensive than the Seek Thermal camera and has a more limited temperature range, but can show students what heat looks like.
At 1.2- by 2.5- by 0.7-inches, it is twice as big and heavy as the Seek Thermal. That’s because in addition to the company’s sensitive Lepton IR sensor, the FLIR One camera has its own built-in 350 milliamp-hour battery. On the downside, it isn’t charged when it’s connected to a phone or tablet. You’ll need to plug it into a computer’s USB port or a micro-USB adapter.
Unlike the Seek thermal device, the One has a digital camera alongside its thermal camera. This allows it to precisely overlay images onto its thermal maps. The Seek uses the phone’s native camera for this, which can end up distorting the image. As is the case with Seek, there are versions for an iPhone or iPad (with a Lightning plug) or an Android phone or tablet (with a micro-USB plug).
There’s a big gotcha with Android tablets or phones, though. Because there’s no agreement on which way the micro-USB plug is oriented, for some devices – like a Nexus 5 (which I use) – you’ll need an adapter that changes the plug’s orientation. It works fine with a Samsung Galaxy S6 Active phone. There’s software for iOS and Android, but, as is the case with the Seek device, there’re no apps for PCs, Macs and Chromebooks.
Once everything is connected and the device’s free app has been loaded, you’ll get a spectacular view of infrared energy. It’s ready for lessons and requires little or no set up. FLIR’s software makes the One shine with the ability to overlay visual images over the thermal ones with nine different of backgrounds at 640- by 480 resolution, although the color coding doesn’t correspond to temperature.
In addition to recording thermal videos and saving them as .mp4 files, FLIR provides software for doing panoramas, time-lapse and close-ups. It can show the hotspot in Fahrenheit or Centigrade units. On the other hand, its temperature range is much more limited with the ability to show anything between -20 to 120-degrees Centigrade versus -40 to 330-degrees C. It can detect differences as small as 0.1-degree C. For most teaching work, it won’t matter, but might be a constraint for recording things like reaction temperatures in a chemistry lab.
A big step forward for thermal imaging is that the One has an automatic thermal shutter that is whisper quiet. By contrast, the Seek’s shutter requires periodic recalibration that makes an annoying clicking noise. Unlike Seek, FLIR has gotten third parties to write software for the device. For instance, Owens Corning has an app that lets you check a house, office or school for heat leaks and energy efficiency, making for a very nice energy conservation lab or classroom activity.
It comes with a hard case and charging cord, but no AC adapter and includes a one-year warranty. Even with its limitations, the FLIR ONE is the ticket for showing what’s hot and what’s not.
+ Inexpensive infrared sensor
+ Excellent visualization software
+ iOS and Android versions
+ Easy to set up and use
+ 640-by 480-resolution
- Some phones or tablets require an adapter
- Limited temperature range
What is the state of the art for science, technology, engineering and math education? Vernier’s free “2015 National Survey on STEM Education” can answer that and other burning questions with information on everything from state curriculum standards and adoption of NGSS to challenges facing STEM education. It’s there for your download, just register.
When 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.
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.
+ 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
If 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.
The 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.
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.
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.