Expanding Possibilities, Technology in the Classroom

Guest blog post: Pete Oleson teaches middle-school and high school Science courses. Thank you for sharing this with us!
I don’t really think in terms that isolate technology from everything else that I do. Technology is another tool in the toolbox. Nothing more and nothing less.

For instance, in my Advanced Placement Environmental Science class, we're working on a project on the ENSO or El Nino in which students had to develop a hypothesis on the effects of an El Nino. They then had to locate data to test the hypothesis.

This would have been very difficult to do even 10 years ago, but now the data is available quite readily. By the time we are done, students have learned how to access computers at NASA using the Giovanni interface and finding data to test it. They also know how to locate historical weather records from NOAA (the weather service). They generate maps which are then scaled and analyzed using an analytical tool from the National Institutes of Health called ImageJ.

What they study is completely self-chosen, and what I do is look at their work in progress and offer suggestions on where to look for information and how to present it. When they're done, they generate a lab report that I critique using the same criteria I used when I got research ready for publication when I was an Industrial scientist. They revise it at least twice until it’s “good enough."

The truth is-- in the end--these are all transferable skills. They’re not about just doing my lab. They are about asking questions, making hypotheses, accessing up-to-date information, using cutting edge tools to analyze it, and presenting it coherently. What profession doesn’t want those skills?

To be honest, the kids are screaming.

This is hard. This is not playing with computers. This is very much using them as tools. Students are mad that they don’t have a step-by-step do-this, do-that procedure. Sometimes, it’s important to give them that. That is indeed part of science.

But the other part--the part they’ve never done, the exciting part--is to really think about questions and how best to answer them. Can I justify what we’re doing? You bet I can. Maybe there are those who think it would be better to have a “canned lab” that an “educator” has put together using 10 year-old data where everything works, spend 90 minutes on it, and then declare a success.

I want students who are working someday and come up against a problem and start thinking “How can I find that?” and “You know, there is a tool that you can use to find measure that, and I can access it and use it right now on my desktop.”

Remember ImageJ? Today, we might use it to analyze sea surface temperatures or chlorophyll concentrations that NASA collected--not 10 years ago, but last week. But it’s a tool that is also used to measure growth of tumor cells in MRIs and other digital images of cancer cells.

It’s not about computer as toy, anymore. It’s about the computer as a tool to expand possibilities.

Don’t think that it’s not hard work and time-consuming for me or anyone to master those tools because I spend hours doing it before I try to show them how to use them. But it can be done if you want to do it. In the end, science or learning isn’t about teaching a bunch of factoids for someone to regurgitate on a test and forget tomorrow. They can get a book or go to Wikipedia for that.

In the end, it’s about helping my students turn their challenges into possibilities...their “what ifs” into answers. How much is that worth?

~Pete Oleson

"ImageJScreenshot" by Original uploader was MarcoTolo at en.wikipedia - Originally from en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ImageJScreenshot.png#/media/File:ImageJScreenshot.png


It's not the Project that matters. It's the Thinking.

When I first started this blog on incorporating Project-Based learning (PBL) and developing those kinds of projects, I started off with the usual suspects: distinguishing between projects and PBL, emphasizing authenticity and “real world” applications, and so on. Then I stumbled upon a video on Socratic Questioning from the Foundation for Critical Thinking with Richard Paul. 

Within the first two minutes of that video, I was blown away by Paul’s premise as it pertained to thinking. He posits: 

The main goal is to help students think in some way (e.g., historically, geologically, anatomically, chemically, philosophically, mathematically) or to think like an artist, a writer, an analyst, a researcher, an historian, etc.  (Paul, 2013)

I paused the video at that point to marinate. Then, I started it over at the beginning again, just to be sure I got it. I thought:

 Isn’t this kind of thinking what we want from our students, ultimately? 

Doesn’t PBL revolve around the idea that students will be doing this kind of  thinking, this depth of thinking? 

Then, I considered one of the distinctions between Projects and PBL: projects focus on a product (a diorama or PowerPoint) (Mayer, 2012) whereas PBL focuses on how a student works with and within a real-world scenario or problem or one that simulates authentic real world situations (Larmer, 2012).

Having students create a presentation on a president falls short of PBL. It is a project, but it is not by and of itself project-based learning. It is project-based presenting.

Having students think like biographers or journalists is the goal.  Why does someone write about a president? For what purpose?  How would a journalist share what he/she found out? Consider, too, how the significance of the thinking changes when writing/reading about George Washington versus Bill Clinton—the shift from thinking like a biographer versus a journalist. 

Real world thinkers are thinking like researchers, analysts, artists. Real world thinkers are thinking geologically, astronomically, and environmentally. They care about accuracy, clarity, depth, logic, and significance—all things that, if we were to witness them in a student project, would give us that teacher glow!

We don’t want students to “make a Prezi” or “make a brochure.” We want them to care about what they are reading and exploring (the content). We want them to care not just about the content, but about their thinking, their content.
If you really want to integrate PBL in your classes, step back and consider how you can move your students towards striving to understand things for the purpose of finding a resolution to problems yet to be resolved/continue to persist, or to provide a new perspective on something. 

That’s what researchers, engineers, poets, dramatists, global citizens, historians, architects, artists…do.


Larmer, J. (2012, May 24). What does it take for a project to be “authentic”? Retrieved from http://bie.org/blog/what_does_it_take_for_a_project_to_be_authentic

Mayer, A. (2012, November 27). What’s the difference between doing projects and project-based learning? Retrieved from http://www.friedtechnology.com/2012/11/whats-difference-between-doing-projects.html

Paul, R. [CriticalThinkingOrg]. (2013, September 18). Socratic questioning series [disk 1] [part 1] [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvMGza0Roo4&list=WL&index=12