Disruptive Science Coming Soon to Your Phone and Tablet

Jan is interacting with a computer model of molecules while simultaneously recording the temperature of a cup of water using a sensor. The model shows molecules condensed into a formless mass of atoms randomly slipping past one another at a speed that depends on the temperature of the real water. As Jan cools the water with dry ice, it turns into solid ice. At the same time — because the model is connected to the experiment through the sensor — the molecules in the model line up in regular arrays, still jiggling but locked into a crystalline structure.

Disrupting STEM Education

After a few moments of exploration with this model, students like Jan can understand important concepts: that liquids are disorganized masses of atoms, that solids are rigid arrays of atoms, and that temperature relates to the amount of random motion, even in liquids and solids. They can also observe that molecules attract one another and that the liquid-solid transition relates to the interplay of this attraction with the random motion.

Thanks to Google’s generosity and the power of HTML5, we’re bringing Molecular Workbench to Web browsers everywhere and paving the way for the “textbook of tomorrow.”

This snapshot of a lesson illustrates how fundamental ideas of atomic motion, temperature, and the structures of liquids and solids can be taught without recourse to equations, specialized vocabulary, or appeal to authority. This is but one example of a disruptive force in science education — the use of highly interactive science-based computer models to change what content we teach, how we teach it, and when it is introduced. This sketch also shows how basic concepts of science and engineering can be conveyed to learners earlier and in a way that is so vivid and obvious that concepts learned this way would last a lifetime.

In light of this capacity, science educators need to rethink their educational strategies, the topics they teach, and the optimal sequence of topics. The current hodgepodge of facts, vocabulary, and trivia could be replaced by a sequence of fundamental ideas taught conceptually and then gradually augmented by mathematical descriptions.

All middle school students could develop a better command of key science concepts than most of today’s college science students. They would understand concepts such as light-matter interactions, heat and temperature, biological and stellar evolution, the strength and structure of materials, and quantum mechanics. In high school, they could deepen their understanding through a semi-quantitative treatment of these concepts. They could, for instance, understand the central role of energy conservation, the relation between energy and temperature, the connections between potential energy and forces, chemical reactions, and protein function.

This kind of disruption of the standard science topics does not fit well into today’s glaciated science curriculum. The encroachment of standards and high-stakes assessments has frozen the science curriculum in place. The standards are merely a reflection of current practice, and no more. Textbooks reflect these standards, tests measure their most superficial aspects, and their structure and content directly drive almost all curricular choices. Consequently, there is no role for quantum mechanics in middle school, almost no chance that the strength of materials will find its way into precollege teaching, and little likelihood that teachers will move away from familiar approaches and content.

What can we do? The Concord Consortium plans to appeal directly to kids in and out of school worldwide with free, playful, attractive learning activities based on models and sensors. Thanks to the emerging HTML5 standards, which make it possible to run our computational models online, these activities will be easily viewed on every tablet, phone, and computer that has a modern Web browser. These will be available to schools also, and a groundswell of demand from students and parents could influence schools.

The Google Grant

A new grant from Google.org allows us to take the software and probeware that has made us famous and optimize it to work in a browser. The Google grant funds the conversion of our award-winning Molecular Workbench software to the next-generation version, which will work on any computer with a modern Web browser, and links it to probeware as well (see also “Under the Hood“).

Molecular Workbench (MW) is not a single model, but a tool for making hundreds of highly interactive models that involve atoms and molecules for important systems in all fields of science and engineering. Based on a decade of funding from the National Science Foundation, we have already used the Java version of MW to make hundreds of model-based learning activities.

The Google grant allows us to make accurate scientific models available in a browser, and also open the activity creation process to anyone who can make a Web page. Teachers and curriculum developers will be able to add goals, background, instruction, help, challenges, and assessment items to create an effective learning tool.

At the model level, we will create a cataloged set of free plug-in models. Anyone will be able to take any model and drop it into their Web page. So, if a teacher already has a Web-based lesson about osmosis, she can add one of several MW models of osmosis from our model bank. And if the right model is not available, the teacher can make her own. This could be as simple as starting an existing model in a different state or creating a new Molecular Workbench model.

We will also create a set of Web versions of our best Java-based Molecular Workbench activities. Because these activities will be Web pages, they can be used directly or easily modified by teachers and authors to fit a broad variety of educational contexts.

We are particularly proud of the fact that the models and activities will be completely free and open for any use. Students, teachers, districts, and commercial publishers will be able to use and modify both the models and the model-based activities. We hope that millions of learners and educators worldwide will take advantage of this great resource. Please follow our progress and help us spread the word.

Robert Tinker (rtinker@concord.org) is the founder of the Concord Consortium.