Inquiring Minds: The UC Berkeley School of Education Is Helping K-12 School Districts Integrate Palm Handhelds into an Innovative Web-Based Science Program

Article excerpt

If you visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium last year, you might have encountered a group of high school students staring into the 90-foot-long, 326,000-gallon Monterey Bay Habitats exhibit. Or looking into the Outer Bay exhibit where sunfish, sharks, tunas, barracudas, sea turtles and dolphinfish swim. Or peering into the towering 280-foot-high Kelp Forest display. You might have seen them recording their observations on Palm handheld computers and wondering just what they were doing.

They were doing original research to try to determine how important it is to save certain fish species. Back at school, they would upload their observations from the aquarium to a special server and begin to answer important questions like, "Why should we care if some fish species are disappearing?"

Several groups of local high-school students have completed such investigations. This work is just one of several projects being developed by the UC Berkeley School of Education to help K-12 schools extend the study of science beyond the classroom to engage students in learning that makes science more interesting and accessible. It's called WISE, the Web-based Inquiry Science Environment.

"This project represents a revolutionary integration of handheld activities into a broader instructional context," says Jim Slotta, researcher and lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Education and director of the WISE project. "Students collaborate to use Internet materials and incorporated an observational activity at a museum setting, then use their aggregate data to think about difficult science concepts."

WISE Provides the Framework

WISE is a free, online learning environment tailored for students in grades 4-12 ( UC Berkeley started the project in 1998, building prior research into science-inquiry frameworks.

Slotta's team expanded the Scaffolded Knowledge Integration Framework to support science-inquiry projects that feature hands-on lab activities and field trips. This framework focuses on making science accessible and more visible, while fostering the social supports that promote lifelong learning. The program also builds on the Knowledge Integration Environment project, which researched Internet usage for science curriculum. Finally, the team created a special browser-based learning environment for middle and high school students.

In WISE, students work on projects that focus on contemporary issues like genetically modified foods, earthquake prediction, creek health or the controlling of malaria. They use tailored online tools pro-incorporated into the environment: journaling, online discussions, causal maps, data visualizations and the Sensemaker argument editor.

Teachers can choose from a wide range of projects to implement the program. All have been developed in partnerships between scientists from many agencies, such as NASA, NOAA and the National Geographic Society. Instructors also can monitor and grade student work, provide feedback and manage students' accounts online.

In June 2001, the UC Berkeley School of Education became a Palm Education Pioneer (PEP) Research Hub. Palm Inc.'s PEP program supports research institutions, school districts and schools of education committed to training and supporting teachers who use handheld technology to enhance learning.

"We wanted to further the use of Palm handhelds by integrating them into the curriculum," says Slotta. "The WISE project would provide a coherent framework while the handhelds would enable data-collection activities, like surveys and field observations, and reflection activities in analyzing the data."

The department used its grant of 500 Palm handhelds from the PEP program to research how WISE and Palm technology could work together. They partnered with two large school districts to explore the effectiveness of their designs in a wide range of classroom contexts. They also joined with science discipline experts and agencies, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to develop compelling projects. …