Thursday, August 30, 2012

SimUText: Stimulating Science Class

By Sean Scarpiello

As my classmates and I were dismissed from our first ecology class, we began dreading all of the new homework we were assigned. The work to do for our next class was not like typical homework. We did not have to read and take notes, or even complete worksheets. The homework we were assigned was all computer based on a program called SimUText. This software is designed to help science students understand new concepts by providing simulations which offer the material in a form where it is visualized in a much easier manner. So after our first assignments on the program, many students had their own opinions on this new method of learning.

First, we needed to download the software through the internet which did not take too long at all. After giving the site our school email address, the site recognized my professor’s account on the site. This allowed the professor to assign us only the lessons he thought were useful. This was nice because the site is extremely user friendly, which is important because it allows students to focus on the material without having difficulty navigating the site.

As we began to work through the assignment, SimUText was extremely clear in conveying the material and had a lot of visuals which kept us entertained. The simulations also worked well as they were easy to carryout and pertaining to material being taught. The simulations were also beneficial because they were not too restrictive. For example, one simulation’s goal was to show the evolution of a type of fish when exposed to different conditions. Although the simulation asked to expose the fish to one factor, we could branch off and test other factors over several generations. I was impressed that the simulations did not appear as if they were all predetermined and the same for everyone. In fact, if a student ran a simulation multiple times, the results would be different each time. This was interesting in the regard that everyone is not experiencing the same monotonous experiment.

One other great feature of SimUText was that it keeps the student active. Throughout the entire lesson, students are asked to make predictions and answer questions pertaining to the reading and simulations. By keeping the student’s mind involved in the material, the subject matter becomes interesting. It also ensures students are reading and not just skimming through the material. The program even allows the teacher to look in on how much time each student spend on different sections as well as their answers to the questions. Our teacher is looking at our answers and giving us a grade on how well we do. It is also nice because he can look in on everyone’s answers and determine which topics need to be reviewed in class.

When class rolled around after our first SimUText homework assignment, there were mixed reviews on the program. Overall, there seemed to be a love-hate relationship with SimUText. The majority of students thought the simulations were interesting and much better than having to read or take notes from the textbook. Others felt that the simulations wasted time because they could read the material in the textbook much quicker than going through all of the simulations. To this response to the program, the professor asked if students just read and took notes from the book, would they understand the material as well as if they had gone through the simulations. The answer across the room was “No.”

Overall, SimUText is a great tool to use in a science class at any level. By keeping students active in the material, students spend more time on the material and retain much more of the information as compared with to traditional textbook work. The program is extremely simple for students and teachers to use and all of the lessons are premade for the teachers. The ability for teachers to follow each student’s performance through the material is also a bonus as they can use the program as a gauge to see what the class understands and what needs to be reviewed in class.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Integrating Fun into the Classroom

By Sean Scarpiello

As the beginning of the school year quickly approaches, teachers are looking for creative ways to integrate new technology into the curriculum. Now that many schools have invested in the latest laptops and iPads, teachers need to decide which educational programs and applications to use in class. While most of the different software teaches the same material, teachers are stepping into the shoes of students to determine which programs will be the most effective in class. Aside from the scope of material being taught using these digital programs, teachers are finding that they need to take into account other factors such as clarity, difficulty, and entertainment value. From a teacher’s perspective, it is important to take into account all of these factors, especially entertainment, because if students can have fun while they learn, they will learn even more.

One of the best types of programs to incorporate fun into the curriculum is digital programs that are game based. Video games are huge right now so if teachers can bring the fun and competitiveness of video games into a learning environment, students will naturally learn more. Many students are innately competitive, so if students’ homework is getting to level 8 in a math adventure game or getting 2,000 points in a grammar puzzle, students will not view the homework as work. There are tons of different educational games on the market today, especially technology based games. Some of the cool games for students are adventure games where they explore vast digital worlds but must answer math questions to move around their surroundings. There are also many games where students race against the clock to answer questions in math, grammar, science, history, and more.

These sorts of game-based education programs will be effective because they allow students to learn interactively. They can pick up the basics of the class material from the teacher, but then test their skills on a colorful computer screen, rather than a bland worksheet. Also through this type of learning, students will be driven to get the farthest in the class or gain the highest amounts of points. Even though the students are driven to beat the game or be the best, they are also becoming self-motivated to learn. In fact, many students may enjoy the game-based education so much that they forget that they are learning. This keeps students actively engaged in their studies without becoming bored or struggling to find uses for education in the real world. Students will actually end up learning more than they thought they would. In addition, they may not view school as boring or intimidating.

Teachers will also enjoy the games because they can find that their students are more engaged in class and in homework. Also, since the programs are computer-based, teachers can monitor and track the progress of their students. This allows teachers to base their lesson plans around the difficulties of the class as a whole, as well as target the individuals who are struggling. This sort of individualized education comes with all technology based education programs and is beneficial for both the teacher and the student.

In all, the game-based educational software would definitely be a good choice for teachers to integrate into their curriculum. They keep students active in the learning process and ensure they do not get discouraged or bored. Throughout the summer, a lot of these students are entertained through video game systems, so why not carry on that entertainment into the classroom. Here, students will have fun, while learning more than they thought imaginable.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Khan Academy Enters Next Era With iPad App

Offline learning is the latest tool for the unorthodox education organization. Here's how that and other new features will power Khan Academy's new app.

Khan Academy, the wildly popular YouTube lecture series, has launched its free, new iPad app in Apple's store. The enhanced version of Khan Academy includes time-syncing between devices--no Internet connection required--an interactive transcript of the lectures for easy searching, and a handy scrubber for moving between parts of the lectures. Perhaps more importantly, now that more schools have begun adopting Khan's lectures for their own classrooms, the iPad app could possibly replace or supplement textbooks, saving cash-strapped schools and students a lot of money.
The major benefit of the app is offline learning. "If you're going on a road trip or if you're taking mass transit and you don't have cell service, or whatever, you can get the content," says Khan Academy Lead Designer Jason Rosoff. The iPad frees Khan Academy from the constraints of a laptop and Internet connection. Rosoff says the app will remember where users left off viewing and sync progress between devices (though, for the initial version, both devices will need to connect to the Internet before going offline to sync).
Second, with inspiration from TED, Khan lectures will now have an interactive time-stamped transcript, which is a convenient search function, considering some of the lectures can be quite long.
Last, just like a textbook, users flip back and forth between different parts of the content. "People scrub a lot in our videos," says Rosoff. The app will have an enhanced version video scrubber (the scroll bar at the bottom of a video) that makes repeating areas less painful.
For the growing number of schools that are adopting iPads, the most impactful potential for the app is for Khan Academy's "flipped classroom," in which lectures are watched at home by students, and then assignments are completed collaboratively in class, where a teacher is present. "The teacher is free to do a lot more of the human interaction," says Shantanu Sinha, President and COO of Khan Academy.
Intrigued by the idea of the flipped classroom, a pilot program in the Los Altos school district in California has started using Khan's online lectures for a substantial portion of the learning. Teachers use visualization software that could track student progress in the lectures, and they've discovered that some students were often mislabeled as "at-risk."
"Very often, students who thought they were horrible in math, who were labeled bad in math by schools ... in many cases, they were just struggling with a very specific topic," Sinha says. "Without the ability to explore lectures at home, struggling students were left behind as teachers progressed through the lesson plan. But, when students could focus on problem areas at their own pace, they could overcome weaknesses and catch back up with the class.
The initial version of the iPad app doesn't include the visualization tools and exercises necessary for a Khan Academy classroom, Rosoff says, but once the tools are part of the app, schools may adopt the Khan lecture series as a electronic textbook replacement. That'll also give Khan more time to address early feedback about the tools in later app updates. 
Find the new Khan Academy iPad app here
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Friday, August 10, 2012

Is College Worth It?

By Sean Scarpiello

For many high school students today, college education is quickly becoming harder and harder to achieve. Regardless of the poor economy, college tuition continues to rise each year. As these prices increase, less students can afford to go to college. Many students who take loans to pay for college end up struggling to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in debt. Also, some highly educated people have a very difficult time finding jobs after college and many of these people end up taking jobs which are readily available. Although these people are overqualified for their positions, they need to take any job available to them simply because they need to begin to pay back college loans. Consequently, many high school students and their parents are beginning to ask whether or not a college education is worth it.

Statistically, it is true that, on average, college graduates end up making more money during their lifetime  compared to non-college graduates. Although this is true, there are always exceptions to this rule. Some people, such as Bill Gates, have dropped out or not gone to college and have still been very successful. This idea does not apply only to geniuses like Bill Gates. There should be no shame in entering occupations such as an electrician, plumber, or handyman. In fact, many people in these professions end up making more money than some lawyers and other highly educated people. Plus, there will always be a need for these kinds of workers. If a thunderstorm causes a town’s power to go out, everyone relies on the local electricians to fix this problem, even highly educated CEOs, college professors, and politicians.

With all this in mind, students should not look upon a college as a guarantee to make more money. A college education only increases one’s chances to make more money. From a business standpoint, college is an investment into oneself. For this reason, it is important to make the investment pay off. Picking the right classes and doing well in these classes should be a top priority. If not, college graduates simply will not find a good return on this investment later on down the road. After college, the product graduates are trying to sell is themselves. By increasing the level of intelligence at college, one learns greater abilities and can therefore be more profitable. For example, doctors go through years of highly specialized training because the product they sell is their knowledge. This applies to all jobs, including math, business, political science, art, and more.

In addition, it may be easier to invest the money saved up for a college education into a business. One of the co-founders of PayPal, Peter Thiel, has created a program called the Thiel Fellowship. Here, he gives $100,000 to students under 20 years of age to go out and use it in their own venture. Some of these fellows take the money to spend on education while others drop out of college or finish high school and use this money to begin their own business. The fellowship is an interesting concept. It is a good method for us to gauge the importance of a college education. It can essentially show that if people are self-motivated and intelligent enough to put their money into the best investment possible, then they will be successful, regardless of their level of education.

People should not view college or graduate school as a definite assurance of finding a well-paying job. Therefore, people should choose to go in the path that best fits their personality. If someone learns in a hands-on fashion and struggles in a classroom setting, a vocational school may be the option to save money and still be very successful. Likewise, if someone is innately driven and mature, they can avoid college altogether and invest their money into their own business. That being said, college still serves as an expensive, yet conservative, method of finding success through education.