The InSPECT project forges new directions in science learning by integrating novel technologies and computational thinking practices into curricular activities that allow high school students to undertake authentic and independent science investigations in biology. Using inexpensive smart interfaces to create systems with sensors and actuators, InSPECT aims to make scientific inquiry more engaging and accessible. This approach also gives students opportunities to engage in science and engineering practices. They can design investigations, configure hardware, and use dataflow software to sense and control experiments, much the way professional scientists do.

The goal of InSPECT is to create novel learning opportunities that can lead to the enhancement of science learning through authentic hands-on investigations, dataflow programming, and laboratories to improve of science and engineering practices.

By using flexible low-cost technologies and a three-level curriculum including scaffolding, skills, and background knowledge, InSPECT is able to address many of the barriers that prevent students from practicing authentic science in the classroom. Students will use programmable scientific and engineering tools (light sensors, fan motors, digital thermometers, etc.) to design a simple experiment to investigate phenomena, formulate and refine their own theories, and propose causal explanations of their observations. As they collect data, they can tinker and add complexity to their experiment with additional sensors and compare models with peers while at the same time refining their own theories and conceptual understanding based on primary experiences.

Principal Investigators

Sherry Hsi
Robert Tinker
Peter Sand

Project Inquiries

Share This

National Science Foundation (NSF) Logo

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1640054. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

As a design and development project, InSPECT has three primary research and evaluation questions:

  1. Testing Feasibility - To what extent and under what conditions are students able to use the project’s computational resources to undertake authentic scientific investigations?
  2. Examining Learning Gains - When students are engaged in science experimentation made possible by the InSPECT resources, approach, and designed tools, what learning gains will be observed in students’ abilities to perform science practices, exercise computational thinking, and understand biology concepts? What factors are associated with differences in the gains, if any? We will examine students’ reasoning within a parameter design space as well as changes to their levels of science knowledge integration.
  3. Identifying Teacher Support - What kinds of background materials and assistance did teachers require for effective enactments of the intended curriculum? Specifically, how important is teacher background and experience with computers to support student use of technology-enabled experimentation? What was the impact of various kinds of teacher supports on the quality of the classroom enactments?

We will identify and adapt measures of student learning and refine these measures as student data are collected.

The InSPECT pedagogical model consists of a progression of learning activities using a low-cost hardware and designed software system that is sufficiently flexible to support a variety of student-generated projects to integrate the practices of science, computational thinking, and topics in biology. The goal is for students to “do” science and experience technology's role in enabling science research.

The following provides a preview of the kind of student projects we envision.

Seed germination study

There is concern in the ecology research community that climate change will affect seed germination timing in ways that will severely impact many plant species. Numerous research projects are characterizing the impact of temperature, humidity, and ecosystems on germination. InSPECT students will be able to experience this kind of research first hand and, possibly, generate new results for species and conditions yet to be studied. Seed germination experiments are common in schools, but it has never before been feasible to control factors involved in the experiments with the adequate precision for reproducibility. The advent of computational thinking makes this not only possible, but highly feasible.

The key to obtaining useful germination data involves accurately controlling and tracking moisture and temperature, the independent variables in this experiment, and measuring germination times, the dependent variable. Students, working in small groups, will begin by learning how to control temperature of their growth chambers. The project will provide an inexpensive sensor to measure the temperature of a small growth chamber and a thermoelectric heater and cooler to control its temperature. Students will interface the sensor and controller to an inexpensive controller board that can be programmed using a simple dataflow diagram. Students will be able to use an intuitive programming language to experiment with feedback algorithms such as bang-bang or proportional control and discover the role of time delay between when the sensor is set and when the temperature controller is set. With this system, students will be able to set the temperature in the growth chamber and even program it to simulate diurnal and seasonal variations.

Soil moisture study

With conditions of both limited water and floods, plants and crops rely on the right amount of moisture in the air and soil to survive. One instructional activity will involve controlling soil moisture using a simple conductivity sensor in the soil near the seeds and an aquarium pump that can be programmed to send short sprays of water into the growth chamber. Both of these will be connected to the controller board used for temperature and programmed, with delayed feedback, to result in a constant moisture level that can be set to any value.

To measure the exact time of germination, a tiny camera will be added to the controller board that can take time-lapse pictures that are time-stamped. Reviewing (or automating the analysis of) these pictures will reveal the exact germination time, obviating the need for students to always be present. Data obtained can be graphed, analyzed, and shared with other student groups.

With this simple system, students will have experimental apparatus they can use for a large number of studies. The InSPECT project will provide detailed materials for setting up a simple experiment of one plant species at one temperature and moisture setting: a "set-piece." Students will then be given suggestions for ways to use this apparatus as a basis for their own experiments and asked to create a screencast report on their questions, methods, and findings.

Log In

Don't have a profile?

Create a profile and...

Create your profile now »