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Lean Tablet STEM Machine

If you think that you need a set of expensive STEM sensors and interface device to build an up-to-date physics lab you’re dead wrong. The fact of the matter is that many of the latest tablets have a slew of digital sensors built in and all you need is the right software to tap into them.

To take this notion to its logical conclusion, I set up several of the latest sensor apps on an Asus Zen 8 slate or iPad Pro and tried out a few experiments. While none can match the abilities of dedicated lab sensors or the ability to measure voltage, current or resistance, they can be a good substitute for stand-alone sensors.

While these programs are more limited in scope that traditional STEM offerings, the programs are a big win for schools because they don’t lock you into a vendor and its products. Here you can mix and match. In other words, you can create a STEM lab for less.

Sensor Box for Android

Sensor boxA good way to get started, Sensor Box runs on Android phones and tablets. It lets you tap into sensors for acceleration, light level, sound level, horizontal and vertical orientation as well as magnetism. On the other hand, it doesn’t work with the Zen 8’s gyroscope.

The screen as a digital read-out, an analog interface – like a speedometer gauge for audio level– as well as a graph that tracks the sensor’s output. On the downside, you can’t graph several items at once, like sound and light levels or tag data with GPS position data.

The free software has ads, but they’re unobtrusive at the bottom. On the other hand, Sensor Box is fun and free.

 

 AndroSensor

AndrosensorUnlike the others, the Android-based AndroSensor has a no-frills interface but offers a good assortment of sensors. It shows a list of sensors (acceleration, gravity, light, magnetic field, orientation and sound level) with an explanation of the measurement, its units and the accuracy of the sensor.

You see the current readings along with x-, y- and z-axis orientation, when available. Click on the circle in the upper right corner of each section and a narrow graph of its data appears. Click again and the graph goes full screen. Unfortunately, you can’t run several streams on the same coordinates, but AndroSensor lets you time stamp a data set to help with physics experiments.

Like the others, this freebee has easy-to-ignore ads. Unlike Sensor Box – though –  it can use GPS readings for tying physical data with a location. 

Super Tools

Super toolsSuper Tools not only is for iPads but is the simplest app of the three and presents students with the practical use of the sensor data, like a compass, as well as a helpful unit converter and magnifying camera.

It can appear amateurish with a blank desktop icon and no place to make app-wide changes, like for inches versus centimeters. On the other hand, it is rock solid and dependable.

Like the others, it has a magnetometer, although it’s call a Teslameter in honor of the unit and the scientist. It has discreet ads at the bottom and occasionally takes you to a video game, but it’s easy to get back on the straight and narrow.

Of the app’s 18 sections, the most interesting is the program’s speedometer. It takes GPS readings and creates an average speed based on two or more positions. It’s great for outdoor labs, but is only as accurate as the GPS position fixes.

Its weather page shows not only temperature and barometric pressure but relative humidity, wind speed and direction. What it doesn’t do is tell you the source of this data. While I like the app’s level, the included screen-based digital ruler is calibrated for the 9.7-inch iPad display and I used the larger Pro model’s 12.9-inch display, so it was off by quite a bit.

Unlike the others, Super Tools doesn’t graph things, but is a powerful way to obtain your data.

Take a Bite out of Science and Math

NewbyteNewbyte’s series of science and math programs set the standard for digital education. There are versions for everything from biology and physics to chemistry and math. Everything is interactive with lots of activities and the curriculum is thorough enough to pitch the printed textbook. On the downside, it only goes as far as Windows 7 and is expensive at over $1,000 per student, but there are school-wide discounts and a free one-week trial to see how it works.

 

Programming by the Cards

ScratchCodingCards_coverFlash cards are great for teaching vocabulary, math facts and, now, programming. No Starch Press’s Scratch Coding Cards provide a way to teach the basics of Scratch programming with a 75-card deck. Each card is a self-contained project that can range from games and stories to music and video animations. The front has the project and the back the instructions. It’s meant for third graders and up and costs $25 for the printed and ebook version.

 

Printing a 3-D Future

Dremel-3D-Idea-Builder-roomIf you think of digital design and 3-D printing as the place where art and STEM curriculum intercept, it can lead to a new level of student creativity. Basically, any small object they can create on-screen can be made for the real world with the right software and a 3-D printer.

At $1,599, Dremel’s Idea Builder 3D40-EDU has everything you need to create a 3-D design and printing program at school. It’s perfect for group use and comes with a copy of Autodesk’s Print Studio software for PCs and Macs as well as apps for iOS and Android tablets. It also works with Microsoft’s 3D Builder, 123D Sculpt and Tinker CAD. On the downside, the 3D40 printer doesn’t work with directly Chromebooks.

The Dremel printer works by melting a Polylactic Acid (PLA) filament in a hot nozzle and layering it inside the printer. In addition to replaceable tape for the stage that the items are created on, the kit includes four spools of different colored filament and tools for cleaning the printer’s nozzle.

For something so complicated, the 3D40 was a breeze to get going. It took about an hour to set up the device, connect a PC to it, update the software and get the first model started. Unfortunately, the printer and software are sometimes balky, refusing to accept commands. This can make using the printer an exercise in frustration – at least at first.

Dremel buildingThe 20.3- by 16.0- by 15.9-inch printer fits comfortably on a countertop or extra desk, but make sure it is set up on a sturdy base because the printer’s head moves back and forth vigorously and can cause the device to wobble. The printer’s interior lights up brightly so kids can watch their creations come into being and the system can make objects up to 10- by 6- by 6.7-inches.

Inside, the 3D40 has a 2GHz dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM and 4GB of internal storage for designs. You can put designs on a thumb drive of up to 32GB of capacity; an earlier 3D40 model allows the use of SD cards. Happily, the files are lightweight and are generally less than a few megabytes each.

In addition to a USB port upfront for connecting a thumb drive, the 3D40 has an on/off switch and Ethernet port as well as WiFi for networking the printer. If you plan to network the printer, you might need to set up a proxy server, depending on how the school’s LAN is set up.

There’s a 3.5-inch color touch screen to make selections, display what the printer is working on and show the nozzle’s temperature while it warms up. The printer has hinged clear plastic doors on top and in the front with sensors that warn they’re open. The fact that you can’t lock the doors is short-sighted because the print head gets as hot as nearly 400-degrees Fahrenheit when in use, more than enough to cause serious burns on an inquisitive child’s fingers.

The printer uses the fused filament fabrication technique where a long spool of PLA string is pulled into a hot extruder head that melts it as it moves around the stage selectively laying down 100 micron (4 mil) thick layers of plastic. Unfortunately, the PLA has an acrid smell when it melts, so you might want to have a fan nearby. The PLA filament is 1.75 milimeters thick and is easy to get online or at Home Depot and hobby stores. It costs about $30 a spool that’s good for about 15 to 20 items.

Dremel screenAs the system extrudes layers of PLA plastic, it quickly consolidates, cools and hardens and you can see the shape of the item emerge. On the downside, the 3D40 lacks the internal video camera that the latest Makerbot Replicator+ has for monitoring progress.

Be warned, the process is extremely slow and only slightly faster than watching paint dry. While small things like key chains can take 20 or 30 minutes, a large and complex item can take as long as 9 hours to complete.

Happily, it has a printer queue so that kids can digitally draw their objects and send them to the printer to be executed. I found that putting the printer file onto a thumb drive and having the 3D40 do them one at a time works just as well. On the downside, the printer can only work directly with its own .gsdrem file format, which can be exported from the included Dremel or Printer Studio software.

There’s a whole world of potential objects out there from personalized name tags and tablet holders to molecular models and instructional aids, like a set of numbers and letters and a one-cylinder engine. At any time, you can let imagination and creativity take the lead by having kids start from scratch and design something original.

Alien thumb driveWith the 3D40-EDU product you also get 10 well thought-out lesson plans that range from a simple Pythagorean proof to how plasmids can transfer DNA into new cells. They include directions and all the 3-D building files needed, although some benefit from creating some parts in different colors, not an easy task. More are available at mystemkits.com.

For those teachers who are new to this sort of thing, Dremel includes an online professional development course that can get anyone up to speed on in the ins and outs of 3-D design and printing. It’s a four-hour self-paced class that can keep you a step or two ahead of your students.

At $1,599, the educational 3D40 kit is well worth the extra four hundred dollars over the basic printer. It not only breathes life into STEM subjects but its output is only constrained by the imaginations of your students.

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Dremel 3d40 kit

Dremel Idea Builder 3D40-EDU

$1,599

+ Complete kit

+ 100-micron resolution

+ Works with PCs, Macs and tablets

+ Replacement filament is easy to get

+ Included lesson plans and professional development course

+ Wide variety of projects available

 

- Slow

- Acrid smell of melted plastic

- No Chromebook apps

STEM, With or Without the Wires


Pasco compositePASCO takes the worry out of STEM with a family of sensors and software that let you use plain old USB cables or Bluetooth to connect them to a variety of platforms. With nine members the wireless sensor line ranges from a $39 temperature sensor for monitoring or regulating a chemistry experiment to the $159 Smart Cart that’s perfect for teaching about Newton’s Law, conservation of energy and work.

Happily, PASCO’s SPARKvue software can directly connect with just about every platform at schools, from Windows and Macs to Chromebooks, iOS and Android tablets. None of the sensors, however, work with Google’s Science Journal software. On the downside, you’ll likely need PASCO’s USB adapter for older Windows and Macs as well as Chromebooks.

The $49 voltage meter worked perfectly with an iPad Pro via Bluetooth and a Surface Pro 3 tablet with the cable. Small enough to put in a pocket, the voltmeter runs on a rechargeable battery pack. The white box not only has the model number on it, but a simple wiring diagram showing that the voltage sensor needs to be in parallel while the similar current meter needs to be set up as a serial connection.

It comes with a pair of plug-in electrodes and there’s a USB connector for charging and connecting it to a computer. The sensor has an on-off switch as well as LEDs for Bluetooth connections and battery status.

Pasco selectionAfter pressing the sensor’s button, it became discoverable for Bluetooth connections and linked on the first try. The sensor stayed connected wirelessly up to about 40-feet from the tablet and its battery should be good for weeks of daily use.

The wireless voltmeter can measure voltage with a 0.5-percent accurate up to 15-volts but can handle momentary surges of up to 250-volts. There’s also a current meter available that tops out at 1 amp and has an internal resistance of 0.1 Ohm. Both are capable of recording up to 1,000 samples per second using its Bluetooth connection or 100-times that with a wired connection.

The sensor worked just as well wirelessly or plugged in. I used the gear for a couple of labs like using the output of a solar cell to track the increasing daylight of a sunrise. Later I used a Pasco voltagerheostat to track the voltage with increasing and decreasing resistance. These devices and the others available can be used for everything from a physics lab to monitoring an electrochemical reaction.

Pasco has a good variety of online materials to help make using the voltage sensor and other wireless products easy, including videos. There are online training seminars available for teachers who feel the need of a little help getting started.

Because they don’t have to use wires to connect and cover the majority of computers used in schools today, the PASCO wireless family of sensors can help neaten up the science lab.

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PS3211_MAIN_187732

PASCO Wireless Sensors

$39 to $159

+ Works with iPads, Androids Macs, Chromebooks and PCs

+ Online training and teaching resources

+ Good variety of sensors

+ Inexpensive

+ Directly connects with many recent comptuers

 

- Doesn’t work with Google Science Journal

- Some older computers require connection interface

Solar Cruise

Solar boat compositeWhat better way to teach about the power of the sun than to build a small cork solar-powered boat. While you can do this project on your own, RECharge Labs has put a kit together that costs $30 each or a classroom five-pack for $135. It comes with everything you need, from the solar panel and cork base to the drive motor and propellers. A printed copy of the activity guide, which explains how to build and use the boat, is included but you can get a .pdf Acrobat file of it for an extra $5.

Freebee Friday: A Robotic Storm for Chromebooks

Ev3 chromebookLego’s MindStorms robotic kits are an excellent way to teach everything from the physics of motion to programming, but there’s been one thing missing: the ability to use inexpensive Chromebooks to program the robots. Now, with Lego’s EV3 programming interface for Chromebook that can do everything the iPad version can. It comes with a new set of lessons and tutorials.

STEM Without All the Wires

5424cad3-b81e-4085-b569-28db0be53ccbNeed a set of STEM data sensors that work across the board with Androids and iPads as well as PCs, Macs and Chromebooks? Pasco’s latest wireless sensors can stream data for everything from pressure, temperature and pH to acceleration, light level and electrical current and voltage. They don’t require a wireless connection box, have year-long batteries and they cost between $39 and $99 each.

 

Let it Grow

Click n growForget about trying to grow an avocado pit or potato on toothpicks because Click & Grow’s Smart Herb Garden kit has a free iOS app for iPhones and iPads to monitor growth, create a watering schedule and teach about plants. The kit has LED lighting, sensors that keep an eye on soil conditions and comes with soil already set up and for those with brown thumbs who can only grow weeds, the company guarantees that plants will germinate. It all costs between $100 and $160, depending on which wood the base is made out of. There are also refills for growing new plants every year.

Freebee Friday: (Almost) Back to School, Part II

Chemistry 2It’s summertime and the classrooms are either empty or very close to it. So, it’s time to think about the new school year that's coming, with Vernier leading the way with a slew of tips, tricks and summer services. To start, you can check out the company’s available grants to help outfit a new lab for the incoming class, watch any of its 180 videos or look over the company’s 1,000 sample experiments online.

 

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