Bob Tinker, Emeritus President of the Concord Consortium, noted, “The creation of probeware represents one of the most valuable contributions of computers to education.”
In 1981, Robert Tinker and Stephen Bannasch from the Technical Education Research Center developed the first educational temperature grapher. This software was developed for the Apple II computer and was part of the National Science Teacher Association Project for Energy-Enriched Curriculum funded by the U. S. Department of Energy. HRM (Human Relations Media) Software in early 1983 published the software developed in the PEEC project, including the Apple II Temperature Grapher. Many other types of probeware followed in the coming years for use on many different microcomputers called MBL (microcomputer-based labs) and later for the CBL (calculator-based labs).
Today, a huge variety of inexpensive probes is available. Probe software is used on laptops and mobile devices in schools. Probes provide opportunities for students to collect and display data immediately that they normally can’t see, such as graphing friction shown below for a box containing different masses.
Probes often collect hundreds or thousands of readings per second and the visual graph of the data shows changes as well as overall trends. In 1987 Heather Brasell’s dissertation from the University of Florida research compared traditional paper-and-pencil graphing methods with the instantaneous computer displays equipped with sensors. She found that students have a significant increase in retention of graph understanding when they see the graph instantaneously while the data is being collected.
In addition to short investigations, students can record and display data collected over long periods of time, some even up to a year. Software also can display simultaneously on the same graph collection from multiple probes. This same software can use the data collected from two or more different probes to provide a derived display – like displaying electrical power while students use voltage and current probes.
Although it has been thirty years since their introduction, not every science and math classroom uses probeware. Since probes hold so much promise to help students investigate and learn about the world around them, the big question is: why not?