Why Aren’t There Probes in More Classrooms?

Bob Tinker, Emeritus President of the Concord Consortium, noted, “The creation of probeware represents one of the most valuable contributions of computers to education.”

In 1981, Robert Tinker and Stephen Bannasch from the Technical Education Research Center developed the first educational temperature grapher. This software was developed for the Apple II computer and was part of the National Science Teacher Association Project for Energy-Enriched Curriculum funded by the U. S. Department of Energy. HRM (Human Relations Media) Software in early 1983 published the software developed in the PEEC project, including the Apple II Temperature Grapher. Many other types of probeware followed in the coming years for use on many different microcomputers called MBL (microcomputer-based labs) and later for the CBL (calculator-based labs).

Today, a huge variety of inexpensive probes is available. Probe software is used on laptops and mobile devices in schools. Probes provide opportunities for students to collect and display data immediately that they normally can’t see, such as graphing friction shown below for a box containing different masses.

Friction of a box on carpet containing different masses, Collected by Ed Hazzard, June 2011
Friction of a box on carpet containing different masses, Collected by Ed Hazzard, June 2011

Probes often collect hundreds or thousands of readings per second and the visual graph of the data shows changes as well as overall trends. In 1987 Heather Brasell’s dissertation from the University of Florida research compared traditional paper-and-pencil graphing methods with the instantaneous computer displays equipped with sensors. She found that students have a significant increase in retention of graph understanding when they see the graph instantaneously while the data is being collected.

In addition to short investigations, students can record and display data collected over long periods of time, some even up to a year. Software also can display simultaneously on the same graph collection from multiple probes. This same software can use the data collected from two or more different probes to provide a derived display – like displaying electrical power while students use voltage and current probes.

Although it has been thirty years since their introduction, not every science and math classroom uses probeware. Since probes hold so much promise to help students investigate and learn about the world around them, the big question is: why not?

4 thoughts on “Why Aren’t There Probes in More Classrooms?

  1. As a former science specialist at the elementary level, I can understand your dismay about the lack of the use of probes in science classrooms across the country. I found probes to be a very powerful way for students to engage in true science inquiry and to develop their own personal and sound conceptions about sophisticated real-world phenomena. When a second grader pours cold water into a container of warm water and sees the temperature rise on a graph right in front of her, she quite easily develops a fundamental understanding of what graphs mean and gains insight into basic thermal phenomena.
    So why don’t more teachers use probes to engage their students in authentic and exciting science? At the elementary level, I suspect there are several reasons. One, many classroom teachers are not well versed in and therefore not comfortable with inquiry-based science; there are exceptions to be sure. Secondly, there is uneasiness with any technology that is more involved than an LCD projector and computers in a lab. Teachers I’ve seen and worked with in elementary schools are now pretty comfortable with the hands-on materials in prepared kits that most schools utilize these days. Very few teachers however, know about and understand the value of using technology such as probes with their students.
    Perhaps with the STEM movement gaining more visibility and credence nationally, we will see more use of the T (technology) in the nations’ classrooms. If only more teachers could be exposed to the excitement and potential of technologies like probes, maybe we would see their use become more embedded into science and math programs throughout the country. The Concord Consortium plays an exciting and vital role in this movement.

  2. I wonder if probes are being used by university students? They were not when I was in school, but that was a long time ago. It seems teachers would be more comfortable using them in their classroom if they were the norm in the university setting.

  3. Now that I’m participating in ITSI-SU, I have great lessons with integrated probe activities and a few probes to get started with. As a 6th grade teacher, I didn’t have experience with probes untiI I began ITSI-SU. I think more teachers might use probes if they had similar resources and training.

  4. Probes really let students see the data they have collected. I hope we start to see more and more of them in classrooms.

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