So, now that the semester is coming to an end, it’s time to, as with all Warner things, think back on what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown, and what the implications are for going forward.
I suppose I should start by saying that prior to taking this class, I thought its title was a little redundant. Integrating science and technology? If there is a class on how to do that, then the implication seems to be that you could make a choice to not use technology in your science classroom. But, why? Why would you not use technology? Can you even separate technology from the study of science? In my mind those two things seem to be one and the same, so the subject of this course seemed a little strange. Maybe it was a holdover from when technology was just starting to make its way into classrooms. Maybe it was created to explicitly instruct us in the technology tools (probes, etc.) we would need in the classroom. Or maybe it was something else? Either way, to a millennial who has grown up with technology woven through her life, it seemed a little like an odd topic for a class.
But, as with all things, I think I understand better now. In my mind, science and technology are still intimately intertwined, but I have a better understanding of how that works, and how to consider its use in the classroom. Almost all of my experiences of science have included technology in some way (after all, I used to work at a particle accelerator, in a room with floor to ceiling screens and computers), but I don’t think I had ever really stopped to consider how or in what ways they were related. After all, science doesn’t inherently need technology. The first scientists in ancient times had very limited means of technological tools, relying primarily on the observations they could make using their own five senses. Over time, technology was developed that allowed later scientists to extend their senses, performing more intricate experiments (ex: telescopes and microscopes); but it’s only been relatively recently that scientists have needed to use cutting edge technology to make advances. And in some ways, the science we are teaching school children is “basic” enough, that it would have been discovered by people using much more limited technological means than we have today. In theory we wouldn’t need to use, for example particle accelerators, with our middle or high school level children, because they do not have the background knowledge to properly understand how it works or what it is even telling them.
But just because it is possible to understand high school level science for the most part without making use of advanced technology, does not mean we should. I know from my own experiences that there is most definitely a different feeling to learning in a space using nothing more advanced than paper, pencil, and a chalkboard, vs. learning in a space with a more modern setup, computers, outlet plugs, projectors, smartboards, etc. I had a few classrooms that taught in the “old way” when I was in high school, and while there was nothing inherently lesser about those classes, thinking back on it I can identify a certain disconnect between what we were doing and the “real world.” The lack of technology, which otherwise pervades our modern world, made it seem like the space we were in, and the learning we were doing, was completely unrelated to the real world, and I think it made it harder to extend my experiences outside of that classroom. On the other hand, when I’ve worked in classrooms that were much more state of the art, I’ve found that they sort of give off a vibe of importance and of “the future.” Almost like anything I learn or do in them will be important for later, so I should store it away so that I can draw on it elsewhere.
Maybe I’m creating things that aren’t there. And maybe those feelings are silly. But there is something to be said for making sure that the “school” experiences of students aren’t completely decontextualized from students’ “other” lives. Its hard enough getting kids to avoid compartmentalizing their school and home experiences–we don’t need to make it harder!
However, that doesn’t mean that we should just be throwing kids into “modern” spaces, either. It is so easy for technology to become a distraction or to take away from the content being taught. Heck, on Friday when I was working with my campers to create a powerpoint for their presentation, it was hard to keep them focused on the actual content they were working on because they kept wanting to get distracted by the aesthetics and cool special effects. Even with my prodding to move along, they spent far more time on that than they really should have, and as a result they only had three slides including a title slide (although admittedly too many more than that would have been excessive). I think that’s the danger in not thinking critically about how, when, and why we are using technology in our classrooms–its so easy to get wrapped up in the “flashy” and the “fun,” that we forget what our end goal really is: learning.
What was really intriguing about some of the work we did this semester was that it was actually the exact same as what we did last semester. Some of the readings we did were new and directly addressed technology, but I want to say almost half of the readings we did were ones we had read just a few weeks earlier. It seemed like a strange teaching choice, but afterward I could see that it was deliberate. Not only did we get the benefit of peeling back more layers on those readings during the second time through, but we also had a chance to look at them through a different lens. Last session we were mostly interested in them as commentaries of literacy and science education, but now we had the chance read between the lines and consider their implications for other teaching practices that might take place in a science classroom.
For example, as I was rereading through the Windschitl (2008) article, I found myself a little perplexed, because he didn’t seem to mention technology at all, instead talking about how to create effective inquiry experiences in the classroom. However, I soon started to notice parallels between how to choose good inquiry activities (what sorts of things to consider, how to analyze their contribution to the end goal, considerations of what affordances and limitations they offered) and how to make effective use of technology. If we’re going to analyze every activity we do in the classroom through a lens of “how does this support inquiry learning” and “in what ways does this enable or inhibit students from taking leadership in their own learning,” then so too should we analyze all pieces of technology or instances of technology use in our classrooms.
I’d like to say that our camp experience was perfect and we considered each and every piece of technology we made use of, but that would of course be a lie. There were times when it worked out well, and times when we probably could have done it better. In the end we did the best we could, and can only use what we experienced to inform our decisions moving forward. And I think it is as crucial, when considering the consequences of using technology, to consider the consequences of not using technology.
For example, the day we were out on the beach, taking data, we only had two datahubs but wanted to divide up into three groups. This meant that two of the groups would get to use the really cool datahubs to take their data and would get a chance to experience the usefulness of technology, while the other group would be denied that experience. However, as it turned out, the datahubs had some issues and didn’t work as well as they could have. In addition, they were unable to use the turbidity function because we didn’t have enough pipettes, and it also took much longer at each station to get all the measurements recorded. My group, which was only using a secchi disk, an infrared temperature probe (which ended up breaking, something that could just as easily have happened to any of the datahubs), and a set of whirl-pak bags. Even though the water looked really muddy, if it weren’t for our “simple” secchi disk data, we would not have been able to get any measure of how dirty the water was, an element that ended up being very important in our future work. Even though we didn’t get to make use of the electronic “technology” probes, our “simpler technology” (a colored disk on a string and a set of basically plastic bags) were as important in the end. Each group got to experience “hands on” in different ways, and in the end all the campers learned something new.
So, to sum up, what is my new philosophy on technology and its role in science education? Well, to start, it definitely has a role in science education. I continue to think it would be an oversight to try to run a science classroom without technology (Unless, of course, there simply are no materials available. In that case the teacher would have to do their best while writing all the grants in the world to remedy the situation asap.) However, there are definite situations where technology use needs to be questioned and analyzed. What does this add to the experience? What will it take away? What will happen if it malfunctions? Will students be able to stay focused on the content, and not the side attractions? Is this technology empowering my students, or stifling them? Am I emphasizing technology for the sake of technology, or will this actually add something important to the experience?
As technology continues to play an important role in the future, students will need to learn how to make use of the technology that is in their lives. They need to learn how to discern what tools to use when, as well as how to make that decision. They need to learn when to take out their devices, as well as when to put them away. They need to learn how to make use of the many benefits technology can allow, while also realizing that all technology comes with limitations as well. As teachers, these skills are skills we can teach in parallel to science content, modelling these thought processes and decisions just the same way we model other adult life skills. But we also need to remember that the science comes first, and that everything in our classrooms–technology, activities, supplies, questions, objectives, etc.–need to be in the service of student learning.
Windschitl, M. (2008). What is inquiry? A framework for thinking about scientific practice in the classroom. In J. Luft, R.L. Bell, & J. Gess-Newsome (Eds.), Science as inquiry in the secondary setting (pp. 1-20). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.