By Roger Frost
SPARK Science Learning SystemSPARK Science Learning SystemThe technology for teaching science provides electronic sensors that can monitor sound, speed, temperature and anything a school curriculum wishes to measure. The sensors usually plug into a box that will plug into a computer’s USB socket. Software on a PC shows measurements on the screen, puts them on graphs or calculates say, a rate of cooling. The web at large will tell you how valuable this is in science education.

A trend of late is to combine a sensor box and computer to give a dedicated and remarkably improved system. The SPARK Science Learning System from PASCO (about £305) is a portable and bench unit that takes a couple of sensors and a couple of presses to start measuring immediately.

This dedicated unit with built-in software ensures success and soon raised a smile because, for once, I could focus on whether a temperature probe was in the right place and whether some insulated cups were set up correctly. Too often previously, one might be overly concerned that everything was working properly, but with fewer connections to make and fewer chargers to clutter you see major benefits.

While this is not at all passé, future generations of students will come to expect nothing less than a system which is smooth and convenient. And if you have used generations of devices that put their software in volatile memory or you have you navigate Windows menus with a toothpick fergoodnesssake, this is not passé.

The SPARK screen is large so the virtual buttons on its touch-screen suit fingers instead of just fingernails. You can select part of a graph on screen and do more analysis, such as calculate averages or lines of best fit, than many schools ever do. When you plug in a sensor you can display its readings as a line, number or meter display. And then there is a neat way to preset many options and retrieve them. You do this by ‘building’ so-called experiment workbooks which keep your settings in files on the unit.

Multimedia workbooks for each subject built into the unit

While this isn’t a new concept, the review box had a stack of multimedia workbooks for each subject. I soon found experiments such as "heat of reaction" and "acceleration". The experiment workbooks had been made with the PC version of the very same software. This version lets you incorporate written pictures, instructions, questions and quizzes. You can also save a PowerPoint and so quickly assemble a whole tutorial. You really can have a whole curriculum’s worth in there.

If there is a niggle it is that the software seems like a first-generation idea. For example it could simply show you readings without having to choose any parameters – but this is a point I’d argue for and others would say it’s good to give you control.

Even at this early stage, a general conclusion is that having a dedicated unit for measuring is quite the direction to be heading in. And when you can run the same software in the SPARK system as on your Mac or Windows PC and now the iPod, it matters less whether every computer you use has a "start" menu button. It is far more on task to assess a new system on how reliably it lets you achieve your science objectives. Since a key one of those objectives is learning to investigate science well, having a system dedicated to the purpose strikes me as being the way to go.

Ratings (out of 5)

Fitness for purpose  5
Ease of use              3
Features                   3
Quality                      5
Value for money       4

SPARK Science Learning System
A portable and bench data-logging unit with built-in software and colour touch-screen (finger control, not stylus), compatible with PASCO sensors (temperature and voltage sensors included), price around £305. Available from PASCO.
PASCO website
PASCO UK website

Roger FrostRoger Frost is a writer and author of numerous guides to using technology in science


Bett 2010 logo

BETT 2010
January 13-16, Olympia, London
You can see the SPARK Science Learning System on the PASCO Scientific stand at the BETT Show. Stand N56.
Roger Frost will be showing his Organic Chemistry multimedia software on stand S59

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