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Practical Homeschooling® :

The Great Probeware Scam

By Bill Pride
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #80, 2008.

Beware of "probeware" - the new science education boondoggle.
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Bill Pride

Apple just announced its new operating system, Leopard, for the Macintosh. I own Macs so what does this announcement mean to me?

In the long run, it means lots of neat new features I will be able to use to my advantage, but at first, it will mean my favorite software may have to be upgraded and any new computer I buy will have the new system. Maybe the new system won't talk as well to my computers running Panther or Tiger. Eventually, I will have to upgrade the software and maybe even the computers themselves so they will be compatible.

Does any of this contribute to getting a magazine out? Not in the least. Believe me, I love new technology, but my current computer and operating system run what I need to do my work just fine. New technology just means learning new technology, not learning new skills. In the short run, I serve the technology way more than it serves me.

Technology in High School

The same thing has happened in high-school mathematics with the introduction of the graphing calculator into advanced math and calculus curricula.

Learning to use a graphing calculator is not a trivial thing. The calculator manual for the TI-86 is 431 pages long. Instead of using the maximum time available to actually learn the mathematics, weeks of time are spent learning to use the graphing calculator.

Learning to graph on a graphing calculator only teaches you what buttons to push to get a result while teaching you little about the result you got. For example, what if you were supposed to play with the graph of the equation:

(x2 - 4x + 5)/(x + 2)

and answer some questions about it, but by mistake you left off the second set of parentheses? The resulting graph would be similar in shape to the correct one, but wouldn't be in the right location on the axes. How would you know? You would know when you get the wrong answers to the questions on the test.

Would correcting the error teach you anything about math? No, you would have to carefully review your data entry on the calculator till you discover the missing parentheses and then insert them where they should be. Then the calculator would give the correct answer. You would have learned how to punch in a formula and read the resulting graph on a graphing calculator, but not the mathematics behind what you did.

Teachers taught mathematics before graphing calculators. How and why were graphing calculators added to the curriculum?

Follow the Money

The use of technology, i.e., calculators, in education began almost 20 years ago with the Teachers Teaching with Technology model, developed by Texas Instruments under the direction originally of Bert Waits and Franklin Demana of Ohio State University. They developed the first course, called Precalculus: A Graphing Approach, and helped teach it during the 1987-1988 academic year.

They started the first summer Computers and Calculators in Precalculus Institutes that summer for 80 teachers at Ohio State University. These institutes grew rapidly. In 1993, teachers (with the help of Waits and Demana) developed material for institutes in algebra, precalculus, and calculus and the name was changed to Teachers Teaching with Technology (T3).

The T3 program exploded in popularity, hosting more than 2,000 teachers in summer 1993 and more than 3,000 the summer after that. They expanded to host institutes in geometry, statistics, middle-school mathematics, and elementary-school mathematics. The summer of 1995 saw more than 6,000 teachers participating in 211 institutes in 42 states and Puerto Rico.

Seed money provided by Texas Instruments got writers and developers together to jointly develop curriculum and technology to be presented to teachers at the institutes. The participants were encouraged to consider using graphing calculators in teaching mathematics for high school, and their less complicated cousins for teaching middle-school and elementary-school math.

Has this program been successful? It has for Texas Instruments. An Amazon description for the book TI83 Plus Graphing Calculator for Dummies claims, "The Texas Instruments TI83+ graphing calculator sold 2.5 million units in just the last year." At an estimated $100 per calculator, for that year alone, that one calculator model netted retailers $250 million in one year alone. Over ten plus years, and with more than 30 different models from four different companies, graphing calculators have become a multi-billion dollar industry.

The result: Graphing calculators have become a requirement. In the words of The College Board's Advanced Placement Calculator Policy, "The use of a graphing calculator is considered an integral part of the AP Calculus course, and is permissible on parts of the AP Calculus Exams. Students should use this technology on a regular basis so that they become adept at using their graphing calculators." You are required to use a graphing calculator during part A of the free answer part of the Calculus AP Exam.

The Push for Probeware

Now these same marketing methods are being used to introduce-and possibly mandate-the use of "probeware" technology in high-school science laboratories.

Vernier Software and Technology manufactures a nifty line of sensors and software to interface with computers, calculators, or LabQuest, Vernier's own handheld data collection and processing device.

Now Vernier is offering free workshops in 30 locations for teachers. The workshops are designed to teach them how to integrate probeware into labs for chemistry, biology, physics, math, middle school science, physical science, and earth science courses. By paying a fee and completing an extra project, teachers can get graduate credit for completing the seminar.

At the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference this year, Texas Instruments announced five new face-to-face training courses and one online course offered in alliance with T3 and Vernier. The courses are titled (fill in the blank with Biology, Chemistry, Earth Science, Middle-School Science, and Physics) "Vernier/T3 ______ with TI Handhelds."

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) offers seven Vernier Technology Awards annually of $3,000 apiece. In the words of their website www.nsta.org, the awards are to "recognize and reward the innovative use of data collection technology using a computer, graphing calculator, or other handheld in the science classroom." This breaks down to $1,000 to defray the expenses of attending the NSTA Conference, $1,000 personally for the teacher, and $1,000 in Vernier products.

The goal obviously is to introduce teachers to these probeware products so that they will in turn integrate them into their middle-school and high-school science lab curriculum. I am sure Vernier would love to follow in their partner Texas Instrument's footsteps and eventually make their expensive and unnecessary devices a mandatory part of teaching science in middle school and high school.

The Problem

As I said above, these are nifty little devices. Why should we object to Vernier, LEGO, or any other company introducing their gizmos into the science curriculum?

Loss of freedom. It is bad enough that the subjects we teach in high school are mandated by state requirements and college expectations. I don't appreciate the added burden of having to teach how to use a particular piece of equipment they will never need again, plus its unique software, as well as the subject matter of the course.

Expense. The $100+ per student for a graphing calculator is expense enough. At least a graphing calculator is a useful tool that our science students will use through college and beyond.

However, the Vernier LabQuest Biology starter package costs $800. The deluxe package costs $1,674. Unlike a calculator, this equipment will only be useful for the labs it is designed for. The student will not need it once the course is over.

Obviously, this equipment will have to be supplied by the school. Individual parents can't afford it. The problem for homeschoolers is if this equipment becomes widely enough used that it becomes a mandatory part of high-school science, how will we afford it?

Educational reasons. Robert Tinker wrote a paper called "A History of Probeware." In it he lists-and answers-although not to my satisfaction, three objections to probeware.

  1. By automating a lab, you lessen student interaction and learning. He answers that what you reduce is the drudgery. If an experiment is designed properly, the machine doesn't do everything. The experiment design leaves lots of things for the student to explore and learn.

  2. Suffering is good. "I had to do things the hard way, so should modern students." Nuff said.

  3. The "black box" objection. Because all the student does is plug in a probe and read the results on his recording device, how can he understand what is happening in the experiment? Mr. Tinker claims that the rising of the red alcohol in a thermometer is also a black box; that in fact every experiment has its black boxes. I would counter that the probeware is a magic black box that does too much of the work invisibly. A thermometer, on the other hand, is easy to comprehend. The liquid in the thermometer expands and contracts proportionally to the rise and fall of the temperature.

Here are two of my own objections:

  1. Probeware inoculates kids against proper scientific skepticism. A scientist should always be skeptical. It is only when scientists become dogmatic and stop questioning things that science ceases to progress.

    The problem can be illustrated by an example from Tinker's paper:

    Our primitive interface box would sometimes generate a lot of spurious noise... The result was a graph that had jagged peaks and valleys added to the graph. The children were puzzled by these features and tried to explain their origin. Their observations all concerned why the probe might be warming and cooling quickly... It never occurred to them that the electronics were faulty.

    Kids (or adults for that matter) don't tend to question their measuring tools, especially when they're attached to a computer. Young scientists need to be taught early on to check the accuracy of all their tools, even a simple thermometer, before they trust the results they get. Calibrating a thermometer is a good first exercise in chemistry lab.

  2. The more complicated the measuring tools you use in lab, the more likely it is you will spend more time serving (or servicing) your tools than they spend serving you.

    I was performing an experiment in college biochemistry lab measuring pH with a pH meter. We spent about an hour of the lab correctly performing the steps of the lab, but getting inconsistent results. We didn't question the equipment, but we should have. The lab instructor decided that the probe for the pH meter needed to be replaced. We had wasted half our lab time wrestling with faulty equipment. Thermometers and spring scales don't break down.

    Also to be considered is the time it takes to learn how to use a new piece of equipment. Again Robert Tinker: "Because of the problems we observed with student understanding of the graph scales, I added several activities designed to focus student attention on the scales one at a time in simplified contexts." He used a thermometer on the screen to help the students relate the output of the machine to the reading on the thermometer.

    Was this time spent on learning about heating and cooling? No, the time was spent just on learning how to interpret the graphs displayed by the machine. Why not just use the thermometer in the first place and let the students learn about graphs by tabulating and plotting their data on graph paper?

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