St. John's students use hi-tech tools in science

by PATRICK J. BUECHI
Fri, Jan 26th 2018 04:00 pm
Staff Reporter
St. John the Baptist science teacher Tracy Breinlinger helps seventh-graders James Orlando and Katherine Mitchell work out a science project with a laptop computer and new Probeware software. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)
St. John the Baptist science teacher Tracy Breinlinger helps seventh-graders James Orlando and Katherine Mitchell work out a science project with a laptop computer and new Probeware software. (Dan Cappellazzo/Staff Photographer)

Technology has created quite an effect at St. John the Baptist School in Kenmore, and now the students have the tools to measure that reaction.

St. John's sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders use Probeware, a scientific program that can measure temperature, sound, light and air pressure as the students conduct experiments in earth and life sciences. Specific tools plug into the USB port on one of the school's laptops. These tools gather real-time data and graph it on the screen. The digital reading offers a more accurate reading than a standard thermometer, especially when temperatures change only a few degrees. It also allows the student scientists to focus on collecting observational data.

St. John's is the only school in the diocese to use the products, manufactured by Pasco, a California-based science education company.

Recently, St. John's seventh-graders conducted an experiment to measure the chemical reactions when vinegar is mixed with various kitchen products, such as baking soda and lemonade mix. Rising temperatures mean the mix causes an exothermic reaction. Decreasing temps indicate an endothermic reaction. Each experiment is represented by a different colored line that moves up or down the graph on the laptop screen as the temperature changes.

"What they'll be able to see is on the screen as they take the temperature. As the reaction goes, that line will move. Then they'll do another one, and they'll all be on the same screen. They can very easily compare it because it is all right there on the screen for them," explained Tracy Breinlinger, middle school science teacher and science curriculum coordinator for St. John's. "If they didn't have the Probeware, they would use a thermometer and be reading it. That gets tricky. When they take the thermometer out (of the beaker), the temperature could change. This is recording live as things are happening."

The students can also make better observations while the computer records the data. They don't have to stop watching to take stopwatch readings every few seconds. "This experiment explodes over. They get so excited, they forget they are supposed to be taking readings. The Probeware is still taking readings while they're going, 'Oh my gosh. Look what's happening,'" Breinlinger said.

The students still use textbooks and follow the same curriculum as past years, but they look forward to the hands-on experiments. They learn to follow the steps to conduct an experiment, thus improving reading comprehension skills they can use even if they do not have science careers.

"The curriculum is exactly the same. Our delivery is a little different. It's a lot more student-driven, rather than a teacher standing in the front of the room lecturing to the class. It's student-driven exploration. We give them a problem and the tools they need in order to solve that problem. Through that process of solving the problem, that's where the learning piece is coming through," said Michelle Makar, STREAM coordinator for the school. "It's not just pencil, paper, test anymore."

Breinlinger has found that kids who were not interested in science, because they thought it was hard, now understand the concepts and enjoy it more. The probes help some students with learning disorders through the visual element on the computer screens.

"Our goal, as teachers, is to reach as many students as we can and get them to understand the concepts we're trying to teach them the best that we can," Makar said. "The students that are textbook learners, who can sit down and read a textbook and understand what we're talking about, it's not that they're not benefiting from this. We're still giving them that. But the students who were not learning from that mode of teaching, by giving them an additional piece, I think is a way to assist them as well."

"They're not learning more. I think they're learning better. I think they're getting a deeper understanding because they are able to have that visual of the graphs," said Breinlinger. "Instead of just knowing it for the tests for that five seconds of reading that question, then moving on and never thinking about it again, this allows them to really think about it and mull it over. Then, it brings up some of those bigger questions where they are able to make connections. This will roll into reaction rates. Some reactions go faster, some reactions go slower. How can we take some of these slower ones and speed them up? It's more of a continual progression now."  

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