Involving more students in the study of science, and retaining those students in the field, is becoming an increasingly important issue as the United States struggles to keep up with other countries in terms of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education.

Emerging technologies, combined with the efforts of organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), are contributing to engage students in the study of science-related disciplines more effectively.

Using cutting-edge technologies such as remote instrumentation, virtual reality, and interactive games–as well as more standard technologies such as simulation software and the internet–can help make science come alive for students, many experts say. But in order to increase students’ interest in science, teachers and schools must take an active role in learning new technologies and how they might be used in the classroom.

“There has to be an investment in technology in the school,” said Arlene de Strulle, program director for elementary, secondary, and information education at NSF. Schools must supply teachers with the right equipment so they can use it with students, de Strulle said, and science teachers also should have technologies available for at-home use as well as classroom use.

“The teacher could be quite willing to do it and not have the resources … that’s where the dialogue really has to start,” de Strulle said. “Assuming the school does have the buy-in and does want to engage [in technology], there are all types of learning technologies” that can help draw students in to the study of science.

The internet and software “are really the standard fare, and then you have more advanced emerging technologies,” de Strulle explained. These involve students and teachers using cell phones, visualization technologies, simulations, virtual reality, and interactive games. Besides providing a more authentic, real-world scientific experience, exciting new technologies also can help reach more children, said de Strulle. Emerging concepts and strategies such as gaming, for example, can be used to engage students who otherwise might be turned off by science.

“There’s no question that our world is becoming exponentially dependent on technology, and not to be using technology in the classroom and to not teach our kids–we’re slowing them down,” de Strulle said. “There has to be a place where we start to use [advanced technologies].”

Although these technologies require time and money, it’s impossible to discount the impact they can have on students, she said.

Getting rid of the tedium

“It’s a fact–kids find using technology fun,” said David Vernier, a former physics teacher and co-founder of Vernier Software and Technology, a company that makes data-collection tools for science and math students. “Technology is comfortable to them, and it makes it seem more like real science, because they know scientists use computers.”

Like other advocates of school technology, Vernier says evolving solutions such as temperature probes, for example, make science come alive in the classroom.

“We can collect data quickly, so we get rid of the tedium of what used to be science classes,” he explained, using a thermometer experiment as an example. “You’d come in and do the experiment, write down the data, then go get a piece of paper and make a graph. Now, we use a computer for the graph and a temperature probe connected to the computer, and the student watches the graph and can think critically about what’s happening. They see the graph changing, and the association is immediate.”

Processes such as this one are a great way to teach not only what specific experiments and graphs mean, but also to teach scientific concepts more broadly, Vernier added.

“I see what we’re doing as the equivalent of writing classes and what computers did for those,” he said, adding that ancillary components, such as data probes, can help make science more fun.

What’s more, he said, science equipment allows teachers and students to do things they could not do before, such as, collecting data on collisions, sound experiments, or other events that typically happen very quickly.

“Another aspect is inquiry and interest in labs, and having kids explore something instead of giving them directions–and probe tools are perfect for that,” Vernier said. “The experiment itself doesn’t take very long, so if you do an experiment and it doesn’t come out the way you wanted it to, it’s not a big deal, and you can do it over again and change the parameters.”

Vernier said that an infinite number of experiments could be conducted using probes. “The fact that there are so many probes available, and that they aren’t prohibitively expensive, lets teachers do several things with them,” he said.

Of course, probes are just one of several innovations making inroads in schools. At the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania, teachers reportedly are using a variety of new and innovative approaches to get students more interested in science. “Earth and space science and geography classes can use Google Earth to study the terrain and get a new perspective of rivers, cities, and much more,” said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the district. “We also hope to use GPS software for interdisciplinary projects in math, science, geography, and English.”

Students in the district’s Earth and Space Science program use internet supplements with their textbooks, present chapters to their class, submit assessment questions on their topic, and also do a persuasive speech on their assigned concepts, Becker said, all for a project in which the students must sell a client on purchasing a mineral from their company.

One teacher in the district uses a digital camera on a tripod to capture significant steps in an experiment. Students who are absent can then view a PowerPoint presentation with the pictures, Becker said.

“Our biology teachers use video conferencing to connect to experts in the field, and they also have a web-based textbook with simulations,” she explained.

Other technologies deployed to bolster science across the district include the integration of lab simulation and tracking tools from North Carolina-based SAS in School and a special customizable search tool called netTrekker DI.

The district’s technology education department uses simulations and design in a course that covers principles of technology, and robotics are used in the courses as well.

District teachers also reportedly are excited about getting access to Internet2. The technology will allow students across the district to connect to the internet at speeds far faster than those available through a high-speed T-1 line. Supporters of the technology say it makes it much easier for schools to download interactive videos and other media designed to enhance students’ understanding of difficult scientific concepts.

Competitiveness Council

In his State of the Union Address to Congress in late January, President Bush emphasized the need to boost the country’s math and science education. The speech introduced the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), a new 10-year, $136 billion education and research initiative designed to boost America’s standing as a world economic leader.

Bush’s ACI proposal laid the groundwork for the formation of the Academic Competitiveness Council. The council, funded through the $39.5 billion Deficit Reduction Act signed by the president on Feb. 8, is chaired by the secretary of education and consists of members of other departments whose agencies fund programs supporting STEM education. The federal government says it currently sponsors some 200 funding programs focused on math and science, spread across 13 agencies.

“Our goal is to gauge effectiveness and better coordinate these programs,” said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings of the council, which held its first meeting March 6. “We must all work together to give students the math and science skills they need to compete and thrive.”

No longer a ‘luxury of choice’

Despite the push for schools to begin using more advanced technologies to reach more students, NSF’s de Strulle says schools still must be careful when considering what technologies to invest in. In some cases, she said, the body of evidence is still too small to know for sure whether an approach is effective.

de Strulle said the reluctance of some school leaders to adopt more advanced teaching technologies is partly because there is not yet a standard for these types of technologies as classroom tools.

“They’re new, they’re emerging, they haven’t been well-researched or well-studied,” she said. “There’s a real rationale for not jumping straight into these technologies, and we have to respect that.”

Still, she said, there will always be a place for emerging technologies in the nation’s science classroom.

“If you move away from bureaucratic responses, one critical reason for [using these technologies] is because we can see life as we never have seen it before. If you show students DNA, or show them what’s in our galaxies, and you can bring that to the desktop and they can see the processes going on right before their eyes, that’s inspiring–and that makes students want to be scientists,” de Strulle said.

“Learning is changing, and we are not going to have schools like we do now in the future, because we’ll drop to the bottom of the group of countries that can support high-level learning,” de Strulle said. “We no longer have the luxury of choice. If we don’t embrace this now, it will be too late to embrace in the future.”

She concluded: “Instead of leading the world, we’ll be catching up to the world–[but] we can stay competitive now if we embrace technology.”