In museum circles, EDC’s Bernie Zubrowski is famous for helping children learn science through hands-on explorations with everyday objects. The museum exhibits he has designed allow children to create and test things made out of simple materials. His more than 16 books include such titles as Clocks: Building and Experimenting with Model Timepieces; Mirrors: Finding Out About the Properties of Light; and Raceways: Having Fun with Balls and Tracks. In his latest EDC project, Zubrowski is applying his expertise to a new medium—the computer. In collaboration with the Ecotarium, Zubrowski is developing a multi-media tool for science classrooms that gives students control over videos showing the behavior of microscopic pond organisms. The computer program allows students to study the organisms in real time, slow motion, frame-by-frame, and repeated as many times as they desire.
“The computer interface adds a whole new dimension in terms of being able to see what’s happening,” says Zubrowski. “Students are better able to develop explanations about an organism’s behavior and test those explanations. It’s similar to the way that scientists use video to study organisms.” Take a pond organism like daphnia, for instance. In a typical science activity, students might study live or dead organisms under a microscope. Students could study the physical structure of the dead daphnia, but the live ones tend to move around too much to give students any real insight into how they swim or use their antennae. “With the computer interface, you can slow the motion of a live organism down, watch frame-by-frame, stop, rewind, and watch again—you get to see things you don’t see with the naked eye,” Zubrowski explains.
The advantage of the computer interface is apparent in the probing questions a teacher can ask about slow motion images of an organism like a daphnia, such as, “What is the function of the segments of the daphnia’s body?” By watching in slow motion what the segments help the daphnia do, students develop explanations, such as, “The segments help the daphnia swim, just like my arms help me swim. I have joints that help me move through the water in a controlled way.”
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the three-year project targets children in grades 1, 2, 5, and 6. For piloting, the younger children will observe two-minute videos of goldfish, crayfish, snails, and tadpoles. The older children will observe two-minute videos of daphnia, water beetle, and flatworm. The videos were filmed at Peace River Studios in Cambridge. Squid Country Safari, the software designer, designed a computer interface that is easy enough for first and second graders to manipulate. “The kids have no trouble with the computer,” says Martha Davis, a research assistant on the project. “They just start clicking away.”
In addition to being able to control the speed of the image, students can also add voice or text annotations and then save their comments, which the teacher can print out for a class discussion. “The younger kids who can’t type yet love the voice annotation function,” says Davis. “They’ll record something like, ‘The goldfish is swimming with its fins,’ and then play back their recording several times.” Davis adds that, although students have control over the video on their computers, they often learn as a group, such as when one student says, “Look at this!” and the other students ask for the frame number so that they can all look at the phenomenon together. “When everyone looks at the same thing, they learn as a group,” explains Zubrowski. “It’s like public text—out there for all to see and comment upon.”
The program will include a teacher guide to help teachers use the videos to foster close observation of organisms, providing suggested questions for teachers to pose according to particular frame numbers. Davis points out the benefits of this tool for all students and teachers, whether experienced in inquiry or not: “You can enter the activity at different levels. In classrooms with less experienced teachers and kids, students might ask questions about the color of the organism, whereas in classrooms with more experienced teachers and kids, students might ask higher-level questions.”
Zubrowski emphasizes that this tool is intended as a supplement to the life sciences, not a stand-alone investigation. “I recommend that children have live experience with the organism before viewing the video. There are certain things that children get from a live observation of an organism that they can’t get from observing the organism on a video. The live observation and the video investigation complement each other.”
Originally published on August 1, 2003