Has The Phone Now Replaced The Laboratory?

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By Sivam Krishnapillai

Many schools see mobile phones as a source of distraction and consequently have banned their use in the classroom. Then there are those schools who are not quite sure – because they harbour doubts about their ability to hold back the tsunami.

The mobile web is already bigger than the desktop web and will soon dwarf it. The Internet’s next billion users will be mobile only: young learners will be the bulk of these users. PCs are in for an existential crisis, as is a good part of the education network that was built upon it.

What was the School Laboratory for?

The early history of science in the Western world is often forgotten, particularly its battle against religion. But then, thanks to Newton, God’s laws could be understood and could be demonstrated.

Science demonstration was born – to convince the disbelievers of what was to become a religion in itself. The Victorians did a great job at establishing the new faith, with mantras that are still memorised, along with their accompanying rituals. This had a dual purpose: to establish the new religion and to create practices that would be passed on to generations to come as the ‘scientific method’.

Victorian-era Science in a Post-Modern World

While there are clearly pockets of anti-science activism, as evidenced by the fury of the climate change debate, most kids are born into a world that is deeply ingrained with the scientific method. Is there a need for science to be validated in schools through routine laboratory practicals as the great, great grandparents of today’s students would have done?

The challenge for today’s teachers is to interest kids in science because they are bored. Most laboratory practicals today are routine and utterly predictable. Students have no role other than to follow strict procedures, using old-world tools (though now digitized) that are essentially unchanged from the 19th century. Educational practices have moved on to some extent, but most school laboratory practices have not.

Educators are now faced with the challenge of interesting children born amidst a deluge of data, sensors and connectivity. Do educators really want to teach students how to use a stopwatch, that things are predictable and that they obey without fail the laws of science? Do educators expect students to be more employable if they know how to use a stopwatch? And do educators think students will develop a love for science by doing routine scientific experiments? Are educators not deluding themselves here?

Little has Changed

Although most people see this era as one of massive change, perhaps this is how historians of education technologies will view these times:

“… books were being turned into e-books, blackboards were being turned into YouTube videos and lecture hall monologues were being turned into MOOCs – massive online open courses. And if you think about it, all we are really doing here is taking the same content and the same format, and bringing it out to more students – but the teaching method is still more or less the same, no real innovation there.” (Michael Bodekaer)

Few would have failed to notice the galactic changes in education caused by the Internet. Educators face these changes by keeping what they do constant, but add technology tools to it, like the early days of the Internet when existing practices were often simply replicated. For instance, most shop owners thought, “Great! Now we can put our catalogues online” and that is what they did.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) education, by and large, is still at that stage, missing out on the greater potential of ubiquitous new technologies.

What does the Phone Bring to the Party?

Sensors. People make sense of the world with their inborn ability to sense it. It took many centuries to develop the ability to measure what people sense and a few more centuries to figure out how the things that can be measured relate to each other. This was the magic of science – but that was many centuries ago. There is no magic in it any more or the need to inflict its rituals on today’s students. Schools should not be banning the use of the best sensor platform ever invented – their phones.

Using phones for lab experiments is not a new idea. There are quite a few efforts from far corners of the world, including Bilbao, Spain; Pinar del Rio, Cuba; Chiang Mai, Thailand; Santiago, Chile; Uruguay and Bucharest, Romania. Interestingly, 88 percent of schools in Latin America do not have school labs. The academics of these remote places are making good use of smartphone capabilities. They are poised to potentially leapfrog over their better resourced colleagues, who are still investing in out-of-date, expensive, specialised lab equipment such as data loggers, digital timers and the like.

There are also now Bluetooth connectable sensors that will easily connect a smartphone to a whole range of sensors. Some examples include SensorTags by TI and Node Sensors by Variable, Sensor Module by PocketLabs and Mantis open STEM platform by Hip Science. These devices will take phone use beyond physics into the domains of chemistry, biology and geology.

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What could be the Bigger Change?

Fuelled by parental anxiety about future careers, lab modernisation in many schools is now in full swing, often along the lines of ‘advanced’ use of tools funded by ‘investment in STEM education’ aligned with old-world school practices.

Meanwhile, in a typical class of 20, at least $10,000 worth of fantastic lab equipment is on shut down mode. Each of those 20 students is likely to have a phone worth $500 in their pocket: that phone is a data logger, sensor platform, calculator, camera, display device, record keeper and a connected computer.

Phones are indeed better at doing what old-world lab equipment can do. They come with a greater promise at the level of learning experience. Phones can completely alter the experience of learning STEM made boring by routines that are centuries old.

Phones may finally liberate students from the clutches of routine and empower them to follow their own adventures. At the Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS), great learning happens when students are encouraged to design and carry out their own experiments.

The phone is a perfect medium for connecting learning to making. For instance, 3D printing opens up entirely new possibilities. Students are able to design and create their own components with relative ease and create their own experiments.

ASMS’ initiative in using phones (PhoneLabs) to unleash the ability to visualise phenomena such as acceleration had striking results. Phenomena that were previously explained in abstract were now experienced through students’ phones, through their own activities. All the students surveyed felt that using phones was “a much better way of learning” physics than conventional methods.

It seems sensor technology connects students directly with understanding of physical phenomena: a connection that conventional physics teaching destroys through abstractions. The benefit of abstraction is that it provides a much higher level of understanding that the students can then apply across domains. But it is in this very abstraction that educators lose students because they do not see the connection to real life.

There is a real opportunity with sensor technologies to teach in-situ, to invert the lab, to make the lab the learning session, based on real-world phenomena. As a result, students will never ask the question “So how is this related to life?” and forget physics when they leave the lab – because they take their phones home with them. In this way, the world becomes a lab and physics becomes real.

Ready for Rapid Adaptation?

There are now plenty of free, high-quality sensor apps in both Android and iPhones. Lab4U is a fine initiative led by Komal Dadlani based in Chile. An equally impressive initiative, Tool Box Apps by Rebecca Vieyra and Chrystian, comprises a suite of free apps and excellent lesson plans. Her article Turn Your Smartphone into a Science Laboratory is certainly worth a read. A comprehensive set of lesson plans published by The European Platform for Science Teachers gives a clear indication that the use of phones in labs is well underway in Europe.

The first physics MOOCS course using phones by Professor Joel Chevrier, Professor of l’Université Grenoble Alpes, commenced in January this year. The American Association of Physics Teachers now has IPhysicsLabs focused on smartphone-based physics teaching.

Most interesting of all is Google’s belated jump into this world through what appears to be an app called Science Journal. It is surprising that they waited this long. Perhaps they realised, as the early movers in this scene have long realised, that it is time to connect data collection, learning and recording in contemporary ways. Google’s timely and welcome entry will create massive impetus to change the game. The phone is now a lab.

Sivam Krish is an educational game changer. He ran a cutting edge education experiment “Innovation Space” at the Australian Science and Mathematics School (ASMS), where students learned 3D printing, CAD, programming and circuit design entirely by themselves. PhoneLabs was born out of this initiative.

Sivam has been a design educator, teaching technology subjects at the university level to students of Design through a hands-on, studio-based approach.  He brings to education significant entrepreneurial experience and a very different perspective on how to indulge and inspire the next wave of creators.

Sivam is currently and adjunct associate professor at the University of Canberra.

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