Teachers aided by computers

Launched in June 2005 by the European network of departments of education, European Schoolnet (EUN), the Xplora portal provides a vast online media library for scientific education. Soon, without doubt, it will be impossible to do without information and communication technologies (ICT) to stimulate interest in science in classrooms. We shine the spotlight on a new type of teaching.

According to many science teachers in Europe, Xplora is like a breath of fresh air. ‘The best experience of my career,’ states Lidia Minza, chemistry teacher at Vasile Alecsandrià Galati school in Romania. ‘Science teachers must always have access to new practical resources which are effective and attractive to their pupils. In this respect, information and communication technologies have incredible prospects in the teaching of science.’

By providing free access to teachers, students and scientists, the Xplora portal uses the snowball effect. ‘First you have to motivate teachers if you want to motivate students,’ explains Karl Sarnow, the project manager, educational coordinator and teacher of maths, physics and IT in Hanover (DE). ‘If you want to increase the number of science students, you have to concentrate directly on European schools.’

Classrooms and open sources

To encourage teachers to introduce new IT and multimedia tools into their lessons, the Xplora designers had to find an ingenious way of reducing to a minimum the technical and financial obstacles associated with the installation of the software. Therefore, they initially recruited a group of teachers involved in ICT and educational innovation in order to find the best means of assisting teachers and spreading interest in the project.

Supported by the learning platform Moodle (1), the team created the Knoppix DVD, which has the educational resources of open source software which can be copied and passed freely between teachers and students. The teachers can add their own resources or additional information to provide more depth on a particular subject. In order to optimise these electronic lessons, Xplora has just created the MOUSE concept (Moodle On USB Stick Environment) which enables whole lessons to be stored using a simple USB key.

The interest of these educational resources lies not only in facilitating the teacher’s research work but, above all, in stimulating the pupils’ interest, allowing them to work at home on their Knoppix DVD or their MOUSE. According to Karl Sarnow, the use of MOUSE has provoked real enthusiasm amongst science teachers. ‘It allows maximum manoeuvrability of the content and they can also add their own touch.’

As with all widespread projects on a Community scale, Xplora is faced with the multiplicity of languages. The resources are currently available in English, French and German. Additional versions depend on the involvement and motivation of teachers who could voluntarily offer translations. ‘The level of participation in Xplora is essential,’ stresses Karl Sarnow. ‘This has to be a real online community where teachers are not only users but are also proactive.’

The genius of the webcam

The educational interest of Xplora lies not only in the techniques it uses but in its content. As a self-respecting scientist, Karl Sarnow insists on observation in science lessons. ‘A lesson without practicals and observation is a wasted lesson.’ Observation can be virtual. Xplora therefore provides remote-controlled scientific experiments via the Internet, which are proving to be very successful in secondary schools. The ‘real’ experimental equipment is installed in a university or science museum and directly connected to the classrooms via a webcam. Pupils from different schools and different countries can then observe and participate together in experiments which are too complicated or even too dangerous to be performed in the classroom.

Eleni Kyriaki, a science and IT teacher at European School II in Brussels, thinks these new methods make science teaching more exciting. ‘They allow pupils to observe a real experiment and arouse their interest. However, you have to remain vigilant and not leave pupils too much to their own devices on their computers. It is necessary to guide them and clearly show them the procedures to follow to obtain a result.’

Karl Sarnow thinks these experiments demonstrate how an informal and enjoyable activity can be integrated effectively into a school environment. After two years, Xplora has made its mark and is appreciated by numerous teachers. Its actual impact on pupils remains to be seen.

  1. Moodle is an online learning platform under open source licence used to create learning communities around educational subjects and activities.

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Two examples taken from Xplora

Four Seasons, the stars and customs

An examination of science, religion and history using the same experiment is far from being absurd… By recording the exact time and the precise place of the sunset using specific astronomical dates, groups of pupils will discover the link that exists between the stars and the calendar of a particular civilisation. They will then be able to answer various questions like: ‘what are an equinox and a solstice?’ and ‘why are Easter and Christmas celebrated at these times of the year?’ Using discussion and picture forums, schools will be able to compare and share the results obtained and their different traditions. Teachers and students particularly appreciate this multidisciplinary approach which brings together subjects such as astronomy, geography, religion and also draws them into one experimental workshop.

Millikan and the elementary charge

Robert Andrew Millikan’s oil drop experiment, together with other work, won him the Nobel Prize for physics in 1923. How did it work? All you have to do is put an electric charge on oil droplets and to try and measure the electric charges obtained. To do this, they are atomised successively between two electrodes whose potential is varied until they are immobilised, thereby balancing all the forces acting on them, including their own charge. Then the electric potential of the electrodes is measured and the charge of the droplets is deducted from this. Due to the variability of the droplet mass during atomisation and the variability of the electric charge process itself (by friction or by ionisation); almost every time different electric charges are obtained. Millikan observed that they were all multiples of the same value, e, i.e. the elementary charge of the electron. Its actual value is 1.60217646210×10−19 coulombs (C), whereas the value obtained by Millikan was 1.592x10−19, due to a probable inaccuracy in the air viscosity. Too complicated to be performed in class, this experiment requires a considerable number of values to be significant. Xplora has therefore just launched a new web concept enabling the results from various schools to be pooled in a database available to everyone. Once these values have been collected, students will be able to compare the charge values obtained and note, like Millikan, that the results are not continuous but discrete, and that the values are all multiples of e. It represents an excellent initiation into collaborative research.

Pencil analyses

PENCIL (Permanent European Resource Centre for Informal Learning) is part of Nucleus, a group of projects supported by the Union using the Science and Society action plan of the Sixth Framework Programme. Its objective is to identify how informal education, practised in particular in science museums and centres, represents a source of knowledge capable of supporting and supplementing school education. In other words, how ‘the informal’ and ‘the formal’ can be brought together. This is not surprising as the project is coordinated by the Ecsite network (European Network of Centres and Science Museums).

At the heart of the initiative, 14 science museums and centres are launching different networks and projects to analyse a way of bringing these ‘cross approaches’ into new educational practices. These small-scale networks – a matter of efficiency – are characterised by the diversity of their participants (schools, pupils, educational associations, researchers, national directors of education, specialists in science communication). At the same time, members of an academic think tank (two universities) will present the best examples of various practices in scientific education based on 14 pilot projects.

The Xplora.org site already represents an important tool in this new strategy.