Innovative Labtop System at Colorado State University Improves Student Understanding of Science

Students sat in Stephen Thompson’s class, typing notes on their laptop computers. Thompson drew a chemical equation on the board, and without hesitation, the students stopped typing, flipped around their computer screens and jotted down the equation by hand with a computer-compatible pen, capturing the equation into their notes.

With the help of Tablet PCs, students are engaging in a new, technology-based chemistry curriculum at the Center for Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center at Colorado State University which could eventually displace the large lecture/recitation learning strategy in favor of a student-centered, inquiry-based approach.

In the Labtop System, being developed by Stephen Thompson, director of CSMATE and professor of chemistry at Colorado State, the Tablet PC is placed at the point of learning. Tablets combine the computational power needed for science and engineering with the portability of paper and the wireless connectivity of a laptop. The Labtop system seamlessly unites lecture, laboratory work, use of instruments, homework and field work, literature searching, modeling, simulation, and computation and assessment using interdisciplinary case studies. The Labtop System allows students to develop higher-level critical thinking skills as students design their own experiments integrating well-crafted research questions, robust procedures and the opportunity to strengthen their communication skills.

The research is funded through a $415,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s FIPSE program, or Fund to Improve Postsecondary Education. Hewlett-Packard Corp. also has granted Thompson an equipment award of 21 tablet PCs, numerous peripherals and a monetary gift through the company’s 2006 "Technology for Teaching" program.

"Historically, the lecture is separated from the laboratory for logistical reasons," Thompson said. "The tablet is a catalyst for getting over traditional institutional barriers. We hope to integrate the lecture and laboratory and thereby fuse theory and practice into a comprehensive and effective general chemistry course."

Twenty-four students from one of Colorado State’s Key Learning Communities, a program to increase undergraduate retention and achievement in which students live in the same campus residence hall and take the same classes, were all provided tablet PCs for the semester and were allowed to take the computer anywhere, including other classes. The tablets are pre-loaded with some of the component parts of the Labtop System, including the instructions for experimental work, interactive graphical representation of central chemical concepts and links to Internet resources. As the interdisciplinary case studies are being developed, student use of these resources and the tablets helps test the new approach and determine how best to structure it.

Because scientific equations and other scientific notations are difficult to type, the ability for a student to draw such notations onto the tablet PC has become invaluable, Thompson said. Students have even used cameras imbedded in cell phones – snapping photos of experiments and later loading images into their lab reports – to augment their note taking.

Thompson has been developing innovative and accessible approaches to teaching laboratory sciences for more than 35 years. To foster understanding with active participation in experimental work and by merging that with the technological power of Tablets, students can practice the process of invention and discovery and develop the critical thinking skills necessary for their future careers.

"The Internet and computer technologies are significantly changing the way science is done," Thompson said. "The contemporary scientific environment is characterized by rapid technological change, proliferating information sources, increased pressure for interdisciplinary collaboration, greater complexity and a realization that local solutions can lead to dramatic global consequences. The Standards for Technological Literacy call for students to learn about technology in laboratories and classrooms where they develop practical design and problem-solving skills in the context of real world technological examples."

"More than 90 percent of my students can use a laptop for e-mail, downloading music and word-processing," Thompson said. "But these functions represent a fraction of what a computer is capable of doing. By researching, conducting experiments and engaging in learning discussions online, students will find they are capable of deeper critical analysis – and that their computers are capable of much more as well."