The hardware trend of late is to combine the sensor box and computer to give a 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 before one could be concerned if anything was working, 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 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. 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, far 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.