Can technology be a force for good in the science classroom? Yes – but only if you have a strong teacher.

Can technology improve student learning in science?

Technology can raise the ceiling on science achievement and open new career vistas for every student.

But students can only take advantage of those new opportunities if they can have intense interactions with a strong teacher who deeply understands the science and just as deeply understands the students.

Consider this from my own 70-student classroom:

Three students measure the bouncing of a four-square ball.  One holds a device that measures the position of the ball using ultrasonic waves.  Another is responsible for bouncing the ball in such a way that it stays under the ultrasonic device.  The third is responsible for turning on the data-taking program that record the signals from the ultrasonic device.

The student responsible for bouncing the ball lets it go.

Bounce…bounce…bounce.  It bounces ten times.

On the screen in real time, the position of the ball is plotted against time.  After every bounce, the position graph shows a parabola.  The position graph shows clearly that the maximum height that the ball reaches decreases after each bounce – demonstrating how the ball loses some energy on each bounce.

Below the position graph is another graph – the ball’s velocity plotted against time.  The computer effortlessly calculates the time rate of change of the position to plot the velocity in real time.  After each bounce, the velocity plot shows the ball rising quickly, then slowing down, then momentarily stopping at the top of its path, and then dropping faster and faster until the next bounce, when the graph shows the ball violently changing direction.

That was the fun part.

Now comes the hard part – making sense of the graphs.

Eventually – we hope within an hour after bouncing the ball – the students will see that between the bounces that the sum of the energy of motion (“kinetic energy”) and the “gravitational potential energy” stays constant during flight.  And the students will also be able to calculate exactly how much energy the ball loses on the floor during each bounce.

This laboratory exercise takes place in my classroom at FSU once a year.  We do other similarly technology-enabled learning exercises during other weeks in the semester.  And while my class has a pretty selective group of students, there are still very few who can make the transition from staring at the position and velocity graphs on the computer screen the first time to understanding what all of this has to do with the basic physical principle of conservation of energy without help.  When students first get stuck in this data-to-learning process, they look at each other – their groupmates – and try to work it out themselves.  That works sometimes, but more often one of the students puts up her hand and asks for help from an instructor.

In my classroom, the instructors are generally me and two graduate teaching assistants.  All three of us are “experts” in the physics, of course.  But we need to know more than that.  We need to know something about how students learn physics from the voluminous body of physics education research.  We must have the persistence to draw a student into a learning dialogue, even when the student really just wants to be told the answer.

And we need to manage the other issues that come up in the classroom, including those that occur because men outnumber women in our classroom two or three to one.  Research at other institutions shows that our interactive engagement model of instruction – which uses lecture very little – doubles student learning gains and is a more hospitable environment for women and students from underrepresented minorities.

Technology helps us one more way.  If a student really wishes to have the extended lectures that are typical in most science classes, I can direct her or him to the Khan Academy.  That guy is a better lecturer than I am, anyway.  That way, we don’t waste valuable class time on lectures, which are ineffective as learning tools.  The student can watch lectures on her own time.

We use an online homework system.  It has its limitations, but for students who are mature and motivated, it can be a useful learning tool.  We provide class time for students to ask questions about their online homework problems.

Our task is much easier than that of a high school teacher who is trying to provide the same quality of instruction so that her students learn with just as much deep understanding as ours do.

Consider Rachel Morris, the physics teacher at Rutherford High School in Bay County.  You can see three of Rachel’s students in the picture here (which was tweeted by Andrea Banks, an Assistant Principal at Rutherford), and you can see the track and carts that they are working with.

They were using the same sort of ultrasonic devices we use at FSU, and the data were being collected on a laptop (both the lab equipment and the laptops being used at Rutherford – and at Bay High School and Mosley High School – were provided by FSU).  The students analyzed their experimental results using a spreadsheet.

Then they had lots of questions.  Rachel, who holds a bachelor’s degree in math education but who has invested an enormous amount of time during the last several years building strong physics content understanding, was ready for them.

Life would be easier for Rachel if she spent her class periods lecturing.  Her students’ questions would be limited almost exclusively to simple requests for Rachel to repeat things she had said during her lectures.

By allowing students to explore, and supercharging her students’ explorations with technologically-enabled tools, Rachel has opened herself up to the challenge of answering questions from her students that often seem to come out of left field and severely test her content knowledge.

The technology makes it harder to teach – not easier.  But students genuinely learn with understanding instead of memorizing a list of facts.

And the importance of recruiting and retaining superstar teachers like Rachel Morris becomes even more obvious in a technology-enabled classroom – at least one that is designed to improve student learning.

Recently, I caught a glimpse of the dark side of classroom technology in a rural school not far from my home.  Maybe half a dozen low-income students were learning calculus when their teacher decided to give up and leave early in the school year.  The school’s administration responded by plugging these students into an online calculus course – a recipe for disaster for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who have no access to support at home or in their community.

Low-income students are scarce in the upper level high school math and science courses that open doors to opportunities in engineering, computer science and the health professions, so when I learned about this situation I wanted to help.  I asked the students in my class to volunteer to tutor these high school students, and one student volunteered.  I asked my colleagues to help and one of them volunteered as well.  Three hours before my colleague and I were scheduled to drive out to meet with the school administration, the meeting was cancelled.  The student volunteer never got her phone calls to the school returned.  We never heard from the school again.

Those rural students that had so much promise are tragically lost to the STEM pipeline.  There is no one in the school who can do the calculus that the students are attempting to learn.  The students no doubt floundered, and then gave up.  Maybe there was a disembodied voice on the other end of a phone – somebody who really wanted to help.  That might have worked with my kids.  There is no chance whatsoever that is going to work with a kid from the school we tried to help.

One more point:  The word “facilitator” has gotten a bad rap.  It’s actually a really good word to describe what I and my teaching assistants do in our classroom.  The primary complaint that many of my students have about me is that I don’t teach.  No, I guess I don’t.  But we facilitate darn well.

Unfortunately, the word “facilitator” has become associated with the cruder versions of “personalized learning” – where students sit in partitions and stare at a computer screen all day.  But “facilitator” is a lousy word for that function.  I’d use “babysitter” instead.  A babysitter doesn’t do anything but keep kids entertained and safe.  Babysitters don’t attempt to improve learning.  That person running the crude personalized learning classroom is a babysitter.