Professional Learning

Cooking Up a (Virtual) Laboratory: Discovery Education Science Delivers

These digital resources, from interactive glossaries to lab simulations, help teachers engage students.

May 1, 2008

In an ideal world, teachers would engage students one-on-one and foster a learning environment that's as dynamic and promising as the kids themselves. They would present lessons with panache, assess student comprehension along the way, and give kids a chance to apply their newfound knowledge immediately. Classes would inspire students at all levels to explore topics more deeply and allow them to pursue their curiosity independently.

Credit: Discovery Education Science
Clean Dirt: Students experiment with variables in this soil-erosion simulation.

Some teachers say this Edutopia is now a little easier to implement in the classroom thanks to Discovery Education Science for Elementary, a digital service from the company behind the Discovery Channel.

Education experts have carefully vetted and organized the service's e-books, reading passages, video clips, virtual labs, interactive glossaries, and other materials. The result is a suite of resources, available for a yearly subscription fee of $1,695 per school, that teachers can use to engage students with diverse interests, knowledge, aptitudes, and learning styles in the earth, life, and physical sciences. A similar service, Discovery Education Science for Middle School, costs $1,995 per year per school.

Lessons for Everyone

Emma Haygood, a science and technology instructor at Berrien Springs Middle School, in Berrien Springs, Michigan, says Discovery Education Science levels the playing field for students, giving everyone an opportunity -- and an enticement -- to learn. "We don't have a lot of money for materials and supplies," she says. "The service offers a lot of interactive labs the kids can work on that I wouldn't otherwise be able to have in my classroom. And because it's on the computer, makes noise, and is interactive, they think it's the greatest thing."

Haygood says the service reduces the pressure on students who have disabilities, are slower to pick up new concepts, or have missed class due to illness. Discovery Education Science has organized its reading passages by grade level, so teachers may pull different reading passages for special education or struggling students.

Its e-books have audio support as well, so students can listen to the text as they read along. Many videos are closed captioned, which helps hearing-impaired students. And if students are sick, they can log in to the service from home with a teacher-provided password to cover missed material. On the flip side, the service gives advanced students access to selected middle school-level resources for additional learning.

The service also helps teachers respond to the inevitable assemblies, snow days, and other intrusions that cut class time short. "I can say, 'Scrap what we were going to do, and let's do this instead,'" Haygood notes. "You can go into it, and you don't have to make any modifications."

Teachers can evaluate their students' mastery of key concepts via online assessments that the service automatically scores and exercises that teachers can grade with the help of a scoring tool.

Here's an introduction to some of the key features teachers can use to supplement traditional classroom instruction, demonstrations, and experiments in elementary-level science courses:

Interactive Glossary

Knowing vocabulary is critical to student performance in the sciences, so Discovery Education Science for Elementary features an interactive glossary that puts words into context. For example, it goes beyond blandly defining the term mineral as a "natural, nonliving solid crystal that makes up rocks." Accompanying images reinforce the definition. An animation zooms in on a photo of a quarry to focus on a granite rock before delving deeper to reveal its constituent minerals: feldspar, mica, quartz, and hornblende. A video takes the lesson further by repeating the basic definition and then showing minerals in daily life -- the salt we eat, the gypsum in building materials, the clay we mold, and the gold we wear.


Tracie Belt, a life science teacher at Shorecrest Preparatory School, in St. Petersburg, Florida, says Discovery Education Science's reading selections, image library, and video clips make it easier to do integrated curriculum projects that connect language arts, history, technology, and science. If her students are learning about American colonial times in history class, for example, she might assign readings and videos about diseases from that period. The students can then use the service's movie clips to make an Apple iMovie, read about the discovery of germs in articles and e-books, or write papers or give presentations based on what they've learned.

"The new method of teaching is trying to get kids to think, and this is the best tool I've ever used for doing just that," Belt says.

Discovery Education Science brings all of the digital resources together in one place so students can navigate through them at their own pace and make decisions about the information, images, or video clips they will incorporate into their work. Moreover, they can do all of this independently.

"I think it is really important, because twenty-first-century teaching is all about collaboration," Belt explains. "I don't want collaboration to mean just group work; I need projects in which all students have a part, but they are individually accountable."

Virtual Labs and Explorations

Virtual labs allow students to explore and experiment. When they change a variable in a digital simulation, they can see the results of those alterations more quickly -- and in many cases, more safely -- than in a traditional lab. Without risk of injury, students can apply what they've learned in class and test their hypotheses.

In one virtual lab, students can investigate how differences in soil, water, and light affect the growth of various plant types. Another lab makes students marine engineers and uses their knowledge of shape, volume, and mass to explore what makes objects sink or float as they design and build virtual submarines for exploration under the ocean.

"In a lot of science classes, you can't do the lab, because it's too expensive, you don't have the time, or you don't have the space," Belt says. "The simulations still stimulate their thinking and allow them to test their predictions."

However, the virtual labs and inquiry-based explorations of topics are not meant to replace more traditional experimentation. "Hands-on work is critically important," says Robert Onsi, vice president of product management for Discovery Education. "But if you take hands-on experimentation and marry it with digital resources, then you really have something special." Many teachers agree.

Maya Payne Smart is an education and business writer in Gainesville, Florida.

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