Probeware: Illuminating the Invisible

By Brunsell, Eric; Horejsi, Martin | The Science Teacher, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Probeware: Illuminating the Invisible


Brunsell, Eric, Horejsi, Martin, The Science Teacher


A generation ago, Star Tree's tricorder--a handheld device that scans an unfamiliar area, interprets its data, and records information--seemed like the future of data collection. But today's students are awash in digital devices and are hardly impressed by Spock's machine. Instead they expect to be able to measure, capture, store, present, and share any and all information. Given the amount of advanced technology now in the hands of consumers, there is a corresponding supply of cost-effective sensors and software designed to make the once impossible the new status quo: These include such complex technologies as synchronized video analysis, ultraviolet spectrometers, and gas chromatographs.

Several companies offer product lines focused on digital sensors for the classroom. The gamut of digital sensors runs from accelerometers to voltage probes, with up to 70 sensors in between. Additional technologies include connectivity and software interfaces between equipment such as digital microscopes, global positioning systems (GPS), digital balances, weather stations, and even robots.

Probeware is the combination of sensors and software connected to a computer or handheld device. At the heart of probeware is a digital sensor that measures a particular physical parameter. One or more sensors are plugged into an interface, a calculator, and a handheld device. With the click of a button, probeware collects and graphs data in real time--a graph forms or a table is populated with measurements as the data is collected.

Mike Sullivan, a probeware user and physics teacher at Highland High School in Pocatello, Idaho, observed that "probeware instantly graphs the data in real time so... students can see the concepts immediately. Previously... students had to generate the data and then go back and graph it after the experiment was over. [S]eeing the experiment and the data at the same time brings alive the science."

When students use digital sensors, they not only learn science content more efficiently than with traditional methods, but also better learn the processes of science (Horejsi and Strickland 2004). For example, when a student uses a hand dynamometer, which measures their grip strength, real-time graphing creates a feedback mechanism in which the student's actions are instantly visualized as the data on the graph. …

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