New tech tools engage young scientists

In a familiar classroom scene, lab partners take turns squinting into a microscope. They spy a wriggling paramecium, if the organism doesn’t swim away from the field of view. These days they also peer into an iPad to watch videos and access digital textbooks. Engineer and entrepreneur Jeff Stewart sees a happy marriage between these old and new technologies in science classrooms.

Stewart and his colleagues at Exo Labs have enhanced that connection with an accessory that connects any microscope to an iPad, where students and teachers can take pictures and videos, measure objects, and quickly share observations. The device could help teachers expand students’ ability to interact with the microscopic realm.

“We wanted the iPad to be a center for creating content, not just consuming it,” says Stewart ’01. “Our simple idea is to go into places that have microscopes and iPads. We’re the glue that brings them together.”

While Stewart and others create technology for science classrooms, an old debate emerges for teachers, school administrators, and education experts. Once again—as with film, television, radio, and computers in their times—the educators ask, “Will this new technology hinder or help teach students? Is the expense and the learning curve worth it?”

Ambivalence toward iPads in schools around the country, now at five million iPads and counting, exemplifies the debate toward technology in the classroom. Last year the Los Angeles Unified School District announced plans to give iPads to all its students, invoking skepticism from experts. “Using an iPad just to say you’re using an iPad won’t help students,” Sherri Hope Culver, director of the Center for Media and Information Literacy at Temple University, told The Christian Science Monitor last August. “Technology in the classroom should always be in the service of learning.”

In the Seattle waterfront office of Exo Labs, Stewart demonstrates how the Focus Microscope Camera in conjunction with the iPad could improve science teaching. He walks across the refurbished wooden floors, past wire racks stacked with circuit boards, microscopes, and electronic parts, to a table with the device. It’s about the size of a deck of cards with an adjustable protuberance that attaches to a microscope. A cable connects to an iPad that shows and captures what’s happening beyond the eye’s reach.

From the iPad, he projects a fly wing onto the wall, then a fly leg, a spider, and then a nematode. Stewart says nematodes are especially popular in science classes. The magnified wormy, squiggling creatures definitely have a creepy-crawly feel, which just grabs attention.

Using the app connected to the camera, Stewart measures the length of the nematode, then takes a picture, which he shares via email, all in the space of a couple of minutes.

The office has the feel of a tech startup. Engineers and computer programmers work closely at desks and tables in the light of large windows at the end of the room. While other users might find the tool useful, Stewart insists the focus is on classrooms.

“This makes the experience in the classroom relevant and not so different from what’s in students’ pockets,” says Stewart. “Otherwise students say, ‘OK, I put away 2014 and go back to 1950 to draw this thing out, taking turns at the microscope.’”

A tall man with glasses and close-cropped hair, Stewart smiles as he explains that science teachers—and students—have really taken to the microscope camera.

“One teacher asked us if we had replaced all the students in his class,” he says. “They were excited, pulling out slide after slide. Everyone’s pointing and looking. That teacher was reminded that these kids were curious. Our camera is just a different way in.”

Stewart didn’t start his career working with educational technology. After completing his computer engineering degree at Washington State, he went into medical devices and worked on a tool to predict epileptic seizures. But the difficulties of getting medical inventions into the market disillusioned him.

“I knew some people who had worked in medical startups for 20 or 30 years and never had actually shipped a product,” he says. “It was time to move on, and a startup felt like the next venture I wanted to try.”

Starting out in Stewart’s basement in 2011, he and colleague Michael Baum pooled their energy and leapt into the startup world. Both had recently started families and wanted to connect their work to education. After thinking about where they might apply their creativity and skills, they recalled their love of science as kids and the wonder of microscopes.

“We were sitting in a coffee shop in Fremont thinking of ideas. We realized with the proliferation of iPads in schools and the confluence of STEM education, we could connect with these assets schools already had: microscopes.”

The microscope, a staple of science classroom technology for centuries, seemed a natural fit. Its application for engaging and enlightening students was recognized early on. An 1882 guide to selecting a microscope noted, “As a means of imparting instruction to the young, the microscope has now become indispensable.” An 1806 work affirms that “it opens to the young and curious an inexhaustible source of information and pleasure.” Anton van Leeuwenhoek’s tool still draws students to scientific exploration by revealing the unseen.

Moving from the concept of connecting the microscope and iPad to the design of the actual hardware and its associated app, the engineers began collaborating with science teachers, field-testing in classrooms to make a device that fit with actual lessons.

Their interaction with teachers also led to the development of a magnifier stand for observations of larger objects, and an adapter for telescopes.

Working at a startup can have its perks. The flexibility and nimble response to teachers and clients keeps Stewart interested. But founding a new company is not for the faint of heart.

“It’s not an environment for everybody. There’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty and you feel like you’re constantly running in the fog,” says Stewart. “It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.”

Like sailing around the world. Stewart and two friends, fellow engineers Matt Smith ’00 and Casey McNeese ’02, decided to circumnavigate Earth in 2005. They took sailing lessons, bought a boat, and left their jobs.

“The hardest moment of the trip was casting off,” says Stewart. “Just committing to that one moment we had been talking about for years.”

That two-year trip prepared Stewart for his startup and, as he says, for the adventure of having a family. He and his wife Christina Hulet have a son, Trevor, who is almost three.

The startup mentality is not new to Stewart. At Washington State, he learned from his mentor and professor Clint Cole ’87, ’99 MS about developing educational technology. Stewart says Cole brought relevant, practical industry experience to the electrical engineering labs and classes.

Cole’s own move into educational technology innovation also came by way of medical devices. Even before studying computer science and electrical engineering at WSU, he worked as a paramedic for a number of years. Then, as a student, he decided to turn his engineering savvy toward medicine.

After working for Hewlett-Packard and a medical device company, Cole and his team started a new company and built the Heartstream compact defibrillator, which reduced the size of the emergency machine by a factor of five. They sold the technology, and Cole returned to WSU where he taught electrical engineering classes.

It was in those classes that Cole realized that
his students were missing the hands-on training they needed to advance in their careers. The circuit boards students needed to learn the basics of electrical engineering were overpriced, says Cole. He knew the components alone did not justify the expense of $400 to $1,000.

So Cole and former student and Microsoft engineer Gene Apperson started Digilent Inc. to build their own circuit boards and sell them for $49 to $99, bringing them into the range of not only college students and universities, but also hobbyists and high schoolers.

“We started about 14 years ago, and within about four or five years we became the nation’s leading supplier of digital design kits,” says Cole. “We now have a broad range of kits that appeal to students who want to learn electronic or computer engineering.”

One window of Cole’s office in Digilent looks out to the Palouse hills on the edge of Pullman. Another faces the headquarters of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories (another successful 1982 startup by a WSU alum). Picking up their first commercial circuit board, the engineer demonstrates how it helps educate young engineers. The primary feature is a chip that does nothing until a user programs it to be a computer, a light switch, an MP3 player, or anything an engineer wants.

“These circuit boards with modern chips on them expose those technologies to students,” says Cole. “After supplying WSU and the University of Idaho, we started getting requests from other universities and colleges.”

Cole pulls another device from the shelf. It’s a digital oscilloscope and logic analyzer, a combination of two basic measurement tools for electrical engineers. Like Stewart’s combination of iPad and microscope, the new device builds on old technology and makes the measurements accessible by using a computer as the interface.

An oscilloscope displays electrical signals over time. The earliest ones were built in the 1870s. A logic analyzer does similar work with signals from digital circuits, registering multiple signals simultaneously. Both tools enable engineers to determine if circuits and electrical devices are working correctly.

“Together on a bench, this would replace a huge stack of devices that cost a couple of thousand dollars used on eBay or up to $20,000 new,” says Cole. “It takes thousands of dollars of equipment to see if this 30-cent circuit works.”

Smaller than a DVD case, the new analyzer sells for $99. It connects directly to a computer, where an engineer or student can see the measurements.

Using this “analog discovery” tool with a training circuit board, engineering students can learn the basics of the field. They can also expand the capabilities of the circuit boards with GPS, WiFi, and other plug-in modules for their projects.

Cole enjoys the enthusiasm and understanding from students who learn engineering this way. Digilent has sponsored design contests using the company’s products. Students around the world built devices from very meager resources, such as a robot built from scratch.

Digilent was acquired last year by National Instruments, a large Redmond-based test equipment company, continuing the focus on developing affordable equipment to train engineers.

Technology in the classroom isn’t a guarantee of greater academic success, but it can help. Rich Lamb, an assistant professor in the WSU College of Education, focuses on the applications of new technology in science classrooms and their effectiveness. He measures the impact of the technology in student achievement and engagement.

“Technology is the mode to teach science to me,” says Lamb. “I’m interested in how the application of technology can impact students’ learning and how a teacher can be more effective with technology.”

Lamb, who taught high school science for eight years, believes that technology, if applied correctly, can improve the science literacy of students. He describes how his own chemistry class took advantage of computer-based experiments.

Lamb’s class would try physical experiments, but if they failed to get the right chemical reaction, they would have depleted their supplies and had no way to try again. If they performed computer simulations of the experiments first, then they had greater success with their physical experiments. The computer simulation could also zoom to the atomic level and show the up-close reaction.

However, ambivalence toward technology has polarized opinions on the roles of new devices and technical tools in classrooms with limited instructional time, says Lamb.

It’s an oft-repeated pattern of technological adoption in pedagogical practice. When films were introduced to classrooms in the 1920s, enthusiasts claimed it would elevate the efficiency of teaching students and free up time for teachers. Thomas Edison wrote in 1922 that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

After several decades of use, however, the reality was that teachers’ use of film filled only a fraction of the instructional day. Film entered the teacher toolbox, but only as a limited supplement due to the cost of equipment, lack of material, or real demonstration of any improvement in learning.

Radio in classrooms also had its boosters starting in the 1930s, who said broadcasts “will be as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.” Instructional television shows on a set schedule, and later personal computers, were also touted as panacea for overburdened teachers. Science fiction stories and some education experts in the 1980s claimed computers would supplant teachers, revolutionizing the way students are taught. Others claimed computers would cause students to slip in their academic abilities and lose critical problem-solving skills. Similar criticisms were made about film.

Such fantasies, says Lamb, create a difficult dilemma for teachers and administrators who make technology choices. “The assumption is that students will do wrong with technology,” he says, like playing video games. “Some will, but it makes a cultural barrier to using technology in the classroom.”

To bring a more objective view to the debate, Lamb’s research examines specific improvements in student learning through technology, particularly in science classes. Specifically, Lamb explores the cognition of students engaged with technology.

“Cognition is the underlying genetics of learning. The outward expression of learning is how well you understand the content, how well you understand chemistry or biology,” says Lamb.

He uses video games to gather information on how students think about the material. He looks at critical reasoning, problem-solving, and communication, and how they change during the video game. As he says, technology is excellent at gathering data and allowing analysis of student interaction with material.

Lamb and other researchers have found that technology consistently improves student achievement, but the mechanisms are up for debate. Lamb contends that student engagement with the technology increases test scores and comprehension. And he has biometrics to show it.

Using eye tracking, heart rate sensors, and other physical measurements, Lamb can observe how students interact with technology, such as the serious science video games he studies.

The key, says Lamb, is students learning and directly applying knowledge. Reflecting on the iPad and microscope connection, he says, “As a science teacher I can see giving students an unknown specimen they can examine together, and collaborate in their material. Children are natural scientists, because it’s about understanding the world.”

Technology provides the opportunity for “soft failure,” says Lamb. Consequences for missteps in scientific exploration are not dire, but rather they work as education
al opportunities.

Even if using a technology, whether it is film or the iPad microscope camera, can assist students, teachers must decide on how the technology fits with their lessons. Computers, for example, are clearly a crucial part of education. The question for teachers is when and where they make sense for lessons, says Susie Skavdahl, an educational technology instructor in the WSU College of Education.

Skavdahl, along with education professor Joy Egbert and others, teaches aspiring teachers how to analyze technology and choose how to apply it in their teaching.

“We don’t want our teachers using technology as a crutch, going into the classroom and relying on the technology to teach for them,” says Skavdahl. Instead teachers can enhance their instruction with the machines.

Some teachers may hesitate to use a “smart board,” a giant touch screen whiteboard, she says. But it could show a math problem or a science demonstration video and allow students and teacher to interact without interfering with the lesson.

Skavdahl worked as a special education teacher. From personal experience and talking with current teachers, she says students, whether they are advanced or have learning disabilities, can gain a lot from technologies.

“The pitfalls are students being distracted by technology,” says Skavdahl. “Fear can also impede teachers, like fear of breaking an iPad. We show how to use them like a tool, and give them a bag of ideas that they can use in their classes.”

Well aware of the need to keep teachers involved with the technology, Stewart and his colleagues created an online community of science teachers to share experiments, ideas, and applications of the iPad microscope camera and accessories. The videos and discussion can help instructors better use the device, and share their successes and struggles.

Even at the beginning, says Stewart, “local teachers from Mercer Island were instrumental in helping us understand the needs of teachers. We engineers tend to apply how we want it to work. The teachers helped us understand what a good day as a teacher looks like and how to engage students.”

Teachers are even part of the development process for new devices through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that grants devices to schools that might not be able to afford them. The teachers test the new equipment and give feedback. One successful project was time-lapse photography for the microscope camera. Stewart and Exo Labs are also working with WSU Spokane and their K-12 outreach program to get the cameras into classrooms.

Although Cole and Digilent’s products are often used in college classrooms to train engineers, having both students and their instructors find new ways to use the engineering education devices is crucial.

Down the hall from Cole’s office, a large space houses cubicles and offices where WSU undergraduates, graduate students, and visiting professors design and build projects using the circuit boards, modules, and other tools. On top of a cubicle rests a large spider-like robot. A few feet from there, a student checks the signals from his circuits with the oscilloscope/logic analyzer device.

“These projects will take you from your first touch exposure to electronics. This series of projects that you can complete on your kitchen table can guide you to acquire the skills you need if you want to be an engineer,” says Cole.

In a room downstairs, next to the warehouse, Cole shows the studio for filming instructional videos for teachers and other users. The company gives those videos, along with textbooks and experiments, to consumers for free.

“We have a liberal license for this material to let the educators of the world know it’s out there. They can copy it and use it any way they want,” says Cole. “We don’t put it out there for a cash flow but to build awareness and excitement.”

For teachers and education experts, the peril and promise of technology and machines in the classroom present a familiar problem. Instructional time is limited, the pressure of tests weighs on students and teachers, lack of infrastructure and support might hinder use, and the difficulty in learning a new technology can intimidate or delay instructors. No matter what the research, says Lamb, “Teachers ask how can this make teaching easier than what I do already. That’s the litmus test for technology.”


On the web

Digilent Inc.