Professional Learning

Invigorating Science: Teaching with a High Tech, Low-Cost Tool

New high tech gadgets can make school more interesting and productive for both teachers and students. But veteran teachers aren’t always the experts in determining the best use for the technology.

February 11, 2002

Teacher candidates who grew up in the Digital Age and are continuing their technology learning in schools of education often know more than their elders about integrating technology into the curriculum in a quick and meaningful way. And those preservice teachers have found they gain confidence in both science education and in teaching as they share their knowledge with mentor teachers.

A case in point is use of the Intel QX3 digital microscope.

Figure 1. Monarch caterpillar

Credit: Lynn Bell and Randy Bell

Technology Extends Classroom Study

Throughout the secondary science education Masters in Teaching program at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, technology is introduced to preservice teachers in the context of teaching science with appropriate pedagogy. The focus is never on technology tools -- no matter how "cool" they are -- but on how to use those technology tools to better understand science.

One of several technology tools introduced to preservice science is the Intel QX3 digital microscope. The QX3 has the same capabilities as optical microscopes, including a range of magnifications (10x, 60x, and 200x). But unlike with optical microscopes, the output is displayed on a computer monitor and can also be recorded and saved on a hard disk or diskette. These features make it possible to import the digitized images into other analysis programs, and to incorporate images into word-processed and/or PowerPoint® reports. The accompanying software provides the capability to record both real-time and time-lapse movies, which optical microscopes cannot, and its $99 price tag makes the QX3 affordable in most classrooms.

This capability supports scientific inquiry in the classroom, as described in both Virginia's Standards of Learning and the National Science Education Standards. Both of these reform-based documents promote science instruction that emphasizes understanding the ways scientific knowledge is developed, as well as understanding scientific content.

For example, it's one thing to understand the processes of photosynthesis and respiration but an entirely different matter to understand how scientists developed an understanding of these processes. Activities promoting inquiry skills, including observing, classifying, inferring, predicting, and analyzing, can be first steps toward helping students understand how scientists go about their work. In so doing, students can gain a vision of science as active and evolving, inherently new, and interesting.

Figure 2. Monarch butterfly chrysalis

Credit: Lynn Bell and Randy Bell

Students Bring Technology Tool to Teachers

Early in their first year, preservice teachers in our program have multiple opportunities to work with the QX3 microscope and explore its capabilities for promoting scientific inquiry. They then prepare a series of presentations about teaching with the QX3 for the Virginia Association of Science Teachers (VAST) annual conference.

Each year about 1,000 science teachers from across the state gather at the VAST conference to share ideas and innovations. The majority of the presentations are led by college professors and master teachers. Preservice teachers rarely attend the conference, let alone lead presentations. In most cases, preservice teachers feel they have little to offer a chemistry teacher who has been in the classroom for twenty years. However, technology changes that scenario. For the past two years, every student in our secondary science methods class has attended VAST, both for the experience of interacting with the professional community and for sharing their own educational technology expertise.

Despite ubiquitous use of technology in our society, most experienced teachers do not feel comfortable using technology in their instruction. The primary reason for this is that they have never had coursework modeling the pedagogy of using technology in the context of science teaching. Our preservice teachers have this vision and can confidently share it with more experienced teachers. The preservice teachers set up stations demonstrating different features of the QX3 and topics that can be taught with it. Some topics presented, such as chemistry and physics, are not usually taught with microscopes. In all cases, the features of the QX3 microscope that are demonstrated allow teachers to teach concepts in ways they have been unable to teach without it.

For example, many biology teachers have their students observe microscopic pond water organisms through traditional microscopes and draw what they see. At the VAST conference, our preservice teachers demonstrated that students can record their observations as movie clips using the QX3 microscope (see microscopic pond water organisms (QuickTime, 152K)). Students can then share their movie clips with the class and even with their parents.

Figure 3. Butterfly emerging from chrysalis.

Credit: Lynn Bell and Randy Bell

Special Features Extend Science Experiences for Learners

Using the time-lapse feature of the QX3, our preservice teachers also demonstrated activities that allow students to test predictions about crystal formation in evaporating salt water (see Warm salt water cystallization (QuickTime, 16K) and Cold salt water crystallization (QuickTime, 132K)). Students can explore the relationship between the rate of crystal formation and subsequent crystal size.

The process of sprouting seeds can be captured by the QX3 and transferred to the computer (see sprouting seeds video (QuickTime, 44K)). Students can then embed the video in a report or other presentation.

Before attending the VAST conference, we collected monarch caterpillars and cared for them over a couple of weeks, taking still and video images of each stage of their life cycle. Preservice teachers then demonstrated an innovative way to explore the life cycle of the monarch butterfly that includes images of the larval stage, chrysalis, and butterfly (see Figures 1-3). We have even captured time-lapse videos of the caterpillar morphing into the chrysalis (QuickTime, 60K) and the butterfly emerging from its chrysalis (QuickTime, 80K).

Student science teacher Sarah-Anne Fuller describes digital microscope capabilities to VAST conference teacher.

Credit: Rebecca L. McNall

Both Students and Teachers Benefit

Teachers attending VAST have been enthusiastic about this introduction to easy-to-use and inexpensive technology. In some cases, the teachers have asked the preservice teachers for advice on how to use the QX3 to teach specific concepts, and our preservice teachers have been ready with ideas. Twenty-nine of the 41 teachers who attended QX3 sessions in 2000 responded to a survey seven months after the conference. Twenty-five had told colleagues about the QX3. Twelve had purchased at least one QX3, and 20 had used the QX3 at least once in their teaching or considered themselves likely or very likely to use it in the near future.

The benefit to preservice teachers is even greater, however, as they assume a new role as professionals in the science education community. Preservice teacher Christine Sudzina commented, "When I was demonstrating using the QX3 to make movies of crystallization, a number of teachers asked me challenging questions that made me excited to be teaching them about the QX3. ... I felt like I was really a teacher instead of another college kid." Preservice teachers gain confidence as teachers, interact with experienced teachers, and learn through experience the value of professional conferences.

Emily Yam, after attending the 2000 VAST conference, said she was grateful to attend an event that gave her a feeling of community with science educators, as well as with her peers. "Being in an environment surrounded by other teachers gave me the feeling that what I was doing was important."

Emily is student-teaching this year at a northern Virginia high school, where she has used the QX3 to help her students explore cell structures and cellular transport.

Today's preservice teachers have more opportunities than ever before to experience how technology can enhance teaching and learning. Their technology expertise can then become a bridge to the professional teaching community. Sharing their expertise boosts their confidence and earns the respect of both future peers and potential employers. At the same time, the expertise they share provides practicing teachers with a vision of effective uses of technology in science instruction. Quite literally, everyone's a winner!

Lynn Bell works in the University of Virginia Center for Technology and Teacher Education and serves as managing editor of the online journal "Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education" (, and technical editor for "School Science and Mathematics."
Randy Bell is an assistant professor of science education in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. He teaches courses in secondary science methods, educational technology for science and mathematics teachers, and science education research.

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