What will keep your brownies warm the longest?

That was the question recently posed to a group of fifth-grade science students at the Barnstable Horace Mann Charter School on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The students, along with teacher Sarah McCormack, were taking part in an experiment to find out which type of household container–ranging from Tupperware to a Ziploc bag–would do the best job in preserving the temperature of a just-baked brownie.

While comparing the insulating properties of food storage materials might sound like a job for professional scientists, the students carried out the task confidently, competently, and with great enthusiasm. Actually, they had a blast. And while the sugar high might have been part of the reason, McCormack believes the tiny temperature recording devices in each student’s hands generated a fair share of the excitement.

“Data loggers are a great way to bring together technology and the concepts of science we’re working with,” she said. “The kids find the technology exciting, and they get to learn about things like temperature in a way that’s very new and different from just reading a textbook.”

Data loggers are simple, battery-powered instruments that students use to record and time-stamp conditions such as temperature, humidity, and light intensity, then display the data on a computer graph. Unlike data collection devices of the past, which often were difficult to use and cost-prohibitive for all but the most well-funded institutions, most new data loggers manufactured today are user-friendly, extremely compact (slightly larger than a matchbox), and economical.

The Barnstable Horace Mann Charter School became acquainted with data loggers in the winter of 2001. Linda Puleo, a teacher for GATEWAY, the school’s program for gifted and talented children, learned of the products on the internet at iScienceProject.com, a web site sponsored by Onset Computer Corp. where teachers and students can obtain free, temporary loaner units of the company’s “HOBO” data loggers and access more than 100 downloadable labs.

Although the devices initially were targeted for use in GATEWAY, it didn’t take long for school administrators to see the potential for data loggers outside the program.

“In most cases, what’s good for our gifted students ends up being good for everyone,” said Debbie Morgan, the school’s technology director. “I’f’m always looking for new technologies that are application-oriented, and it was apparent that data loggers would do exactly what we want them to do: help kids learn about weather, data analysis, and math.”

With that in mind, Morgan developed and submitted a grant proposal for 192 data loggers to the Massachusetts Department of Education. The grant was awarded in August 2002.

Horace Mann teacher Laurel McCarthy, who plays a key role in promoting the acceptance of data-logger technology both within the school and at Department of Education conferences, believed the grant made good sense.

“We knew that data loggers would be fun for students,” she explained, “but you can’t just do something because it’s fun. It has to have real value, and must comply with the applicable standards set forth by the state. Loggers happened to be a great fit for our weather unit, which is aimed at exposing students to a mix of math, science, technology, and language arts.”

Laurel Brown, the school’s curriculum director, says 25 percent of the grant money had to be used for professional development. “Since no one had used data loggers before, we had a trainer from Onset … come into the school and train teachers and teacher assistants on the products. While we encourage all teachers to use them, we understand that teachers have different comfort levels when it comes to using technology. So there’s really no pressure from anyone here that you use them. In any event, the training really helped in terms of making the staff comfortable with the loggers.”

According to Morgan, one of the most attractive things about the loggers is that they are handheld, durable, and can be used away from the PC. She says the stand alone nature of the devices allows students to take them home and get siblings and parents involved, while providing the versatility necessary to conduct experiments inside and outside of the classroom.

“We have one student who actually shipped a chocolate bar with a data logger across the country to track melting temperatures, and another who is monitoring the temperature of bird nests to provide answers to his own question about why animals make their homes in certain spots,” she noted.

In the brownie experiment, the students lined up to launch their data loggers, a minute-long process that involved plugging a PC cable into the logger, opening the accompanying Windows-based software program, specifying how often temperature should be recorded (it was a one-hour experiment by design, so students set the “sampling rate” at three-minute intervals), and clicking “Launch.”

Once activated, the devices could be disconnected from the PC and were ready to start collecting data on six types of containers: Gladware, Tupperware, cling wrap, a Ziploc bag, a brown paper lunch bag, and aluminum foil.

The students placed one data logger with a warm brownie in each container, and the logger took temperature readings once every three minutes, as specified during the launch. When 30 minutes of data had been recorded, students lined up once again to reconnect the loggers to the PC for data offload. With point-and-click simplicity, the collected data instantly were translated into colorful, easily recognizable graphs. The students’ eyes lit up as the magic of hands-on learning unfolded.

On the screen, each container type was assigned its own color on the graph, allowing each student to make an immediate visual comparison of temperature spikes and drops. As students chose “Print,” out came graphs of data that students themselves had collected using their own data loggers. As it turned out, aluminum foil keeps brownies warm the longest. A strong feeling of ownership permeated throughout the room.

According to McCarthy, the devices’ graphing capabilities not only provide ownership of the learning process, but also help stimulate critical-thinking skills in her classroom by putting graph data into a language the students can truly understand. This, she feels, helps prepare students for the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), a mandatory, state-administered test for K-12 students.

Since the loggers were purchased last year, students and teachers throughout the school have made the terms “Launch” and “Offload” part of their daily vocabulary. School officials also claim that science and math scores have shown steady improvement from the pre- and post-testing that is administered as students enter and leave the school.

“I’ve seen investments in technology that end up sitting in a closet gathering dust. The loggers are used here every day,” Brown said. “I think people around here have a sense that the investment we’ve made in data loggers is something that is really making a difference.”

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