Stem projects get a lot more creative with Tinker’s Electric Motors Catalyst kit. More so than the electric motor, gears, wheels and other parts, the key to the Catalyst kit’s success is its deck of cards that challenges students to build anything from an egg scrambler to a vehicle. The company provides helpful videos and standard alignment. Available for $45, Tinkering has 10-packs for $399.
The latest in teacher and classroom resources for STEM education is Underwriters’ Lab’s Xplorlabs. With help from Genuine, Xplorlabs is aimed at middle-school students and has lots of lessons with videos, hands on activities as well as classroom challenges to push students further. It’s all aligned with the NGSS standards and includes lots of examples of interdisciplinary thinking.
Class trips to a state park in California can avoid the bus and buddy checks because of the PORTS program. It stands for Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students, and the program broadcasts live from the great outdoors to the classroom. There have been educational programs on the redwood forests, beaches and deserts that emphasize the ecosystems at each location. The key is a specially outfitted all-terrain-vehicle that has a full computer, large screen and a tablet held in place with a Belkin Tablet Stage. Instead of using a document camera, the Rangers bring shells, kelp and pinecones to the classrooms with the tablet and the Tablet Stage’s powerful software. The Belkin Stage app is available for iPads and Androids and not only delivers a sharp image but lets the Rangers annotate, highlight and zoom in on anything.
For most science teachers, using STEM in the classroom revolves around a box or drawer filled with a tangle of sensor cables and connection boxes. Often, the first 10 minutes of a class is spent disentangling these devices and getting them plugged in and working. With LabDisc, it’s all – or at least mostly – inside a small disk.
With a diameter of 5.2-inches and a thickness of 1.5-inches, the disc is like a large hockey puck. It’s easy for small hands to carry and use, is rugged and has a pull out stand in the back. At 11-ounces, a classroom’s worth of sensors can be carried on a tray or cart between rooms.
There are four versions of LabDisc that are each suited to a different lesson or discipline.
- Enviro is aimed at environmental science with sensors for dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity and more.
- Physio is for physical science labs that require measurement of acceleration, motion, voltage and other parameters.
- Biochem is for biochemistry work with colorimeter, heart rate, dissolved oxygen and other gauges.
- The Gensci disc that I looked at has 13 sensors, including ones for barometric pressure, current and voltage, GPS, light and sound, motion, distance, humidity and temperature.
All four devices give you the flexibility to not only tap into their built-in sensors but also into sensors on the host computer, like the iPad’s accelerometer. There’s another way: you can plug in a variety of external sensors, including many older Veriner and Fourier devices via a mini-USB port.
With seven buttons for connecting with the individual sensors and a simple three-key control panel, the disc’s 2.4-inch backlit monochrome screen is the center of attention. I prefer the larger, more colorful and touch-sensitive display on the Vernier LabQuest 2 handheld, but the Gensci scheme works well.
Using any of the discs is remarkably easy, once you get the hang of its input system, so plan on spending some time introducing how they work to the class. Then, the sky’s the limit as far as using the LabDisc goes.
Around the circumference of each LabDisc is a series of input connectors and its power input. The disc’s outer ring rotates to provide access to them. On the downside, some get covered, so you can’t do things like charge the disc and use the external temperature sensor at once.
Happily, the disc has a rechargeable lithium polymer battery that is rated to run for 150 hours. In actual use logging data from the disc’s ambient and external temperature probes, the system actual ran for more than double that. This means that you’ll probably need to charge the systems once a week at best.
Each of the discs connect either via a USB cable or Bluetooth and they generally link up on the first try. An AC adapter and carrying bag top off the package. While the actual details depend on the sensor and what is being measured, they can capture between 1 data point per minute and 24,000 data points per second. The device can hold up to 128,000 data points.
The key to the LabDiscs’s versatility is the GlobiLab software. There are versions for everything from PCs and Macs to iOS, Android and even Chromebooks and Linux computers, making it one of the most versatile devices at school. That means that you can use it with whatever computers are available.
I tried out the GenSci general science disc with an iPad Pro and Surface Pro 3 and found the software to be similar, although each version is a little different. While the software is collecting data you can see the numbers come in and graph themselves or watch analog meter needles swing up and down.
Inside, the program has a slew of premade labs for things like examining acid rain and analyzing the temperature for a week. There’s more online, although no place for teachers to share their favorite home-grown lessons.
It takes a minute or two to set up the disc and start gathering data, a big plus when trying to squeeze a lot into a 45-minute period. I set the disc to monitor the temperature, light level and humidity to catch the setting sun and then used the external pH sensor to monitor the acidity of water as I added salt to it. The data plot showed the variables in different colors and all the raw data and graphs were exportable for analysis inclusion in the lab write-up.
The best part is that the software has enough smarts to do things like show the minimum, maximum, average of a data set and even calculate a summation of the area under the graph. It can show the data’s standard deviation and perform linear and quadratic regression for any two tagged two points on the plot.
At $600, the GenSci disc is pricey and about twice what the Vernier LabQuest device goes for, although the disk has many more sensors built-in. In addition to getting them one at a time, Globisens sells a class pack that includes 16 discs, a cart with central charging station for roughly $10,500. That way, there’ll be enough STEM to go around.
+ Excellent PC, iPad, Android, Chromebook and Linux software
+ 13 built-in sensors
+ Can use some Fourier sensors
+ Lessons and labs
+ Long battery life
+ Sophisticated graphs and analysis
- Disc’s ring blocks some ports
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
A 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.
Unlike 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 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.
Newbyte’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.
Flash 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.
If 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.
The 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.
As 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.
With 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.
+ 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
- Acrid smell of melted plastic
- No Chromebook apps
PASCO 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.
After 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 rheostat 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.
$39 to $159
+ Works with iPads, Androids Macs, Chromebooks and PCs
+ Online training and teaching resources
+ Good variety of sensors
+ Directly connects with many recent comptuers
- Doesn’t work with Google Science Journal
- Some older computers require connection interface
What 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.