Talk of a potential Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DOIT) has centered, so far, of the political feasibility of creating a fund from spectrum auction revenues. To gain the political will, however, many people may need to know about the potential projects DOIT could support. Digital Promise (www.digitalpromise.org), the main proponent of a Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DOIT), sees the fund as a way to unlock the educational potential of the Internet and other digital technologies and to transform lifelong learning. This is the second of a series of papers from the Benton Foundation highlighting the potential public interest dividends of DOIT.
Science is a process of creating laws, models, and theories that enables us to predict, explain, and control the behavior of the world. But some educators think that the laws of physics, for example, are too hard to teach to middle and high school students. In response, researchers at the University of California at Berkeley have developed ThinkerTools, education technology that has helped middle school students to outperform high school physics students in their ability to apply the concepts of physics to real-world problems.
Computer models and experiments are done using the ThinkerToolssoftware which enables students to interact with Newtonian models of force and motion. It also lets students create their own models and experiments. Students use the scientific method: They wonder, formulate questions, guess at answers, then test them out. Using simple drawing tools, students can construct and run computer simulations. Objects and barriers can be placed on the screen. The objects are introduced to students as generic objects, simply called "dots," which are the pictorial equivalent of variables that students can map onto different objects such as space ships or billiard balls. Students can define and change the properties of any object, such as its mass, elasticity (e.g., bouncy or fragile), and velocity. They can then apply impulses to the object to change its velocity using the keyboard or a joystick as in a video game. In this way, they can use simulations to discover the laws of physics and their implications.
The software enables students to create experimental situations that are difficult or impossible to create in the real world. For example, they can turn friction and gravity on and off and can select different friction laws (i.e., sliding friction or gas/fluid friction). This type of inquiry enables students to see more readily the behavioral implications of the laws of physics and to discover the underlying principles. Another major advantage of the software is that it includes measurement tools which allow students to easily make accurate measurements of distances, times, and velocities that are difficult to make in real-world experiments.
The software and curriculum has been used in 7th, 8th, and 9th grade science classrooms in middle schools in Berkeley and Oakland, California. In these classes, inquiry is the basis for developing an understanding of the physics. Physical theories are not directly taught, but are constructed by students themselves. The idea is to teach students how to carry out scientific inquiry, and then have the students discover the basic physical principles for themselves by doing experiments and creating theories. Students are also given a set of materials for conducting real-world experiments.
The students’ collaborative work is similar to that of an actual scientific community. Inquiry begins with a whole-class forum to develop shared research themes and areas for joint exploration. Research is then carried out in collaborative research groups. The groups then reassemble to conduct a research symposium in which they present their predictions, experiments, and results, as well as the laws and causal models they propose to explain their findings. Based on the findings of their computer and real-world experiments, students prepare posters, make oral presentations to the class, and submit project reports. While the results and models proposed by individual groups may vary in their accuracy, in the research symposium a process of consensus building increases the reliability of the research findings. They evaluate together the results of all the research groups, and choose the "best" laws and models to explain their findings. The goal is, through debate based upon evidence, to arrive at a common, agreed-upon theory of force and motion.
Once the class chooses the best laws and causal models, students try to apply them to different real-world situations. As part of this process, they investigate the utility of their laws and models for predicting and explaining what would happen. They also investigate the limits of their models, which inevitably raises new research questions. This brings the class back to the beginning of the inquiry cycle and to investigating the next research question in the curriculum.
Study of the use of ThinkerTools shows:
- engaging in inquiry improves students' attitudes toward learning and doing science;
- the curriculum and software modeling tools make the difficult subject of physics understandable and interesting to a wide range of students and the focus on creating models enables students to learn not only about physics, but also about the properties of scientific models and the inquiry processes needed to create them;
- students test better and perform better in research programs; ThinkerTools is particularly beneficial for the low-achieving students who end up performing almost as well as the high-achieving students;
- students’ greatest gain were in an important indication of sophistication in inquiry called "coherence," which measures the extent to which the experiments that the students designed address their hypotheses, their results relate to their experiments, their conclusions follow from their results, and whether they related their conclusions back to their original hypotheses; and
- sophisticated physics can be taught in urban, middle-school classrooms when you make use of simulation tools combined with scaffolding the inquiry process.
"Rarely does software help kids learn anything; it's all about kids working together,'' says Barbara White, creator of ThinkerTools and a professor at the University of California-Berkeley. ThinkerTools "enable them to create and play with the world and do things and see things you can't normally see, and then think analytically about it,” says Prof. White. "It stays with them and gets better if you keep doing it, whether you're a scientist or a kid working on a science fair project.''
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