Back to School with Sensor Apps: The Big Picture
At the start of the school year we typically see an uptick in downloads of Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite, nearly doubling our monthly downloads compared to the summer months. This has always suggested to use that a large percentage of our users are students and educators, which was our original intent as educators ourselves. (Indeed, self-reports on our surveys suggest that nearly 50% of our users are educators or students). While we advocate for appropriate technology for the appropriate pedagogical purpose--
and that doesn't always include mobile devices--the fact that 40% of our users use Physics Toolbox for their professional, non-academic work, is something that shouldn't go unnoticed by educators who are preparing students for the future workforce. If you want to see yourself represented among these data, complete our anonymous survey.
We don't know as much about how people are using sensors for teaching, learning, or doing their daily work, except for the anecdotes we receive by e-mail or social media, but we do know that our Lessons Page is the most frequented part of our site. You can see a comprehensive listing lab ideas at 30 Experiments with Activities and Sensors, check out these 5 Ways to Teach Force and Motion, an see an explanation of how smartphones enhance more traditional studies of sound beats with More than Mobile). More creative uses of sensors for learning, however, take students beyond the traditional lab space, such as Smartphone Physics at Amusement Parks.
Education with sensors and mobile technology is part of a bigger picture than learning science alone. The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has identified 10 Big Ideas for Future NSF Investments. The ideas have been identified by the U.S.' leading scientists and engineers as some of the most critical areas for development over the next ten years. Two of these areas directly relate to the use of sensor tools.
The Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier: The future workforce will demand not only that students today be technology-literate, but that they be life-long learners who regularly interface with technology as a medium for learning. Machine learning, artificial intelligence, the internet-of-things, and robotics are even now beginning to dominate the workforce, demanding responsiveness and flexibility among the working population.
Harnessing Data for 21st Century Science and Engineering: If technology is the medium for information, data is the "stuff" that today's students must be able to interpret. The NSF emphasizes the need for skills in visualization, data mining, and machine learning, including the ability to understand and interpret the "deluge" of data we are already encountering.
In my own teaching, my goal was to use personal mobile devices and their sensors to help students get a sense of ownership of the environment (and the respective data) around them. From a big picture sense, it was less about a new fad in educational technology or technology education, and more about making science accessible and relevant. As you reflect on your own teaching, I hope you will realize the opportunity you have not only to educate the future generation, but to contribute to the grand scheme that underlies education--to not only prepare students for the workforce, but to be literate participants in an increasingly complex and data-driven world.