Data logging - a quick picture 

(January 2000 TES)

There is an information technology tool where the product is not words, pictures or web pages but nevertheless offers to shift what happens in classrooms onto a new level. Here electronic devices or sensors take readings in science experiments as the computer displays them on a graph. It is fun, enthralling and a core school activity.

In primary schools sensors are incredibly handy tools for learning about graphs and measuring. It’s not hard to take a light sensor and measure the brightness of the room all day and night. You can then print out the graph and get the pupils to figure out what happened when. At this time of year you can do the same with a temperature sensor to see the heating comes on and off. You might even conclude that you're overheating the building. A sound sensor can be extra good value - if you leave the room you can check if the class has been quiet. Or place it on your chest and you may even pick up a heartbeat. More forays into electronic measuring - seeing how things cool, which clothes keep you warmest are the starting points of investigating science.

The sky becomes the limit in the secondary school however. A good number of science departments now have a class set of temperature sensors and light gates – something that seemed unattainable a few years ago. It’s with these that pupils investigate temperature changes and measure the speed of trolleys - activities that are now highlighted in the science curriculum. A few more sensors allow you to do some interesting demonstrations: for example a distance sensor lets you make distance time graphs as you walk towards it; pulse and breathing sensors give an instantly understood result on the screen while an angle sensor neatly monitors how a pendulum moves. Each of these give the instant results so essential in demonstrations. Going beyond this you can show some previously hard to capture events such as electromagnetic induction, sound wave beats and acceleration changes using the super-fast systems from US supplier, Pasco.

But beyond the basic experiments and demonstrations lies a peculiar void. Called, ‘now-what’ it involves wondering how to use hard-won resources and gradually developed skills to achieve something meaningful. One suggestion is to use technology to investigate science – to monitor say, how ice freezes and what affects this. A second is to use the tools built into data logging software to analyse the data - finding out say, how much warmer some fabrics are or whether it is the glass or the stopped drafts that makes double glazing seem to work.

If that seems bizarre, consider the alternative: replace the thermometer in an old style experiment with a computer and it’s arguable if pupils will learn anything new. Ask and they’ll say they already knew that a well-wrapped beaker cools more slowly than an unwrapped one. They’d rightly be puzzled why they used a £1,500 computer instead of a £1.50 thermometer. In short, beyond the void are a lot of really interesting, often challenging investigations. As an IT inspector once said: the point of using ICT was to make the harder work, like analysing graphs, a lot more accessible.


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