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A LOOK AT ... Virtual Science in the Digital Age

By Charles G. Doe - Posted Jul 1, 2008
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New and developing technologies are producing a wealth of wonderful resources for science instruction. These include everything from virtual experiments delivered via software or the internet to probeware and data loggers—and a number of interesting and useful devices in between.

The term probeware, by the way, covers hand-held electronic devices that use sensory probes to measure temperature, current, wind speed, and many other things. Often, probeware and data loggers are combined in a single device.

For many schools, adequate computer access continues to be an obstacle to taking full advantage of some of these technologies. However, computer access isn’t necessarily a prohibitive factor, since some of these programs and devices can be used in small groups or may be projected onto a whiteboard for an entire class to see.

This roundup takes a look at a variety of science programs and tools, with a focus on what’s available and what’s interesting. The goal is to introduce some new possibilities for classroom use, not to provide a comprehensive review of this category of learning tools.


DryLab Dissection Series

Neotek Automation

Neotek offers a virtual reality education system that enables students to "virtually" dissect animals via an interactive CD-ROM-based program. DryLab dissection units are available for crayfish, perch, fetal pig, frog, rat, earthworm, and more for $85 and up per unit.

Each program includes more than 100 high-resolution images and photomicrographs of actual specimens. Students perform the interactive dissections using a computer mouse; tools are selected and cuts are made by clicking directly on the images. Assistance is provided by onscreen help or via a printable dissection manual. The CD-ROM also features narrated video clips, an overview of the structures being reviewed, 200–500 interactive questions, and more.

The Neotek Base System ($295) is required for each computer using the DryLab dissection program. Liquid crystal glasses that help provide 3D images are
required for each student using the program. The Base System includes a video processor and power supply, one pair of liquid crystal glasses, a sampler CD with excerpts from popular Neotek modules, and a user manual and installation guide. Additional glasses can be purchased ($95 each) and plugged into the system so that more than one student can view the dissections.

Badger Trails

Turning Point

Simulations aren’t usually as elaborate as virtual worlds, but they can be just as effective for learning. Badger Trails, for students in grades 2–5, is designed to help students develop map skills while learning lessons in life science and literacy.

The program begins with a spoken introduction that tells the true story of a project to observe and film badgers. One badger is accidentally trapped inside a box and carried a long way from its home territory. The simulation begins with a lost and hungry badger trying to find its way home. Students guide the badger back home, using a provided compass and map, while overcoming dangers and obstacles along the way.

The students have access to information about badgers to assist their decision-making. A BPS (Badger Positioning System) provides an on-screen map so that students can see where the badger is at any time. Badger Trails is divided into tasks; students don’t have to complete the whole trail in one session. 

Badger Trails is available in a Windows or Mac version for $49.95.


The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception

Among the best of the internet’s excellent free science resources, especially in terms of "virtual science," is the Exploratorium, a website developed by The Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco. Like most museums, the site includes an online store featuring a number of very good science kits and other science resources.

The site itself offers a number of resources for science teaching, including a digital library, exhibits, blogs, videos, and much more. At the time this article was written, the online offerings included wonderful material about earthquakes, climate change, Antarctica, the science of cooking, among other topics.

One of my favorite features is the Cow Eye Dissection exhibit designed to help students learn more about vision. The virtual interactive dissection enables students to "dissect" a cow’s eye on their own.



GeoSafari Deluxe MagniScope

Educational Insights

Moving from virtual to gizmo, the GeoSafari Deluxe MagniScope offers an inexpensive combination classroom and field microscope. The unit covers a lot of possible uses for elementary students at a reasonable cost. A deluxe version priced at $26.99 includes 50x magnification and a stand; the basic version priced at $15.99 provides 30x magnification and does not include the stand.

The Deluxe MagniScope features one-hand operation of the focus and light and a stable removable base with an equipment storage compartment. The light source requires two AA batteries. The unit comes with a water dropper, brine shrimp eggs and hatchery, sea salt, plastic cover slips, an activity guide, and more.

Best of all, students can carry the MagniScope around in a building or outside to examine some of the smaller elements of the world around them.


Zarbeco, LLC

Moving up in complexity and cost ($275-plus), the MiScope (pronounced "my-scope") combines a digital movie camera, precision optics, and LED lighting into a microscope that fits in the palm of a hand. The 40x–140x magnification allows users to zoom in on fine details of insects, textiles, electronics, or anything else too small to see.

The MiScope can send images of an object to a computer screen through a USB port connection. The unit can be connected to a laptop for portable use. The included Video ToolBox Software enables users to alter images or movies to add labels, make measurements, and annotate or draw on the live video image.

The MiScope is available for Windows computers only; a minimum of a Pentium III 500 MHz computer is required.

Vernier ProScope HR Kits

Vernier Software & Technology

Vernier also offers a USB hand-held digital microscope, the ProScope HR. The newest model features a high quality CMOS sensor, universal lens mount, and better resolution than previous models.

The ProScope HR kits include ProScope HR software that captures still images, time-lapse photography, and movies. Logger Pro software, sold separately, provides tools that can be used to add images to experiments or lab reports. The software also includes video capture and analysis tools that can be used to show live footage.

The ProScope HR is available for Windows and Mac computers. The basic kit is priced at $275; deluxe kits are priced up to $899. The basic model includes a replaceable 50x lens. The Deluxe kit includes several lenses up to 200x, a flexible mount stand, and other accessories.

Vernier LabQuest

Vernier Software & Technology

The Vernier LabQuest is a hand-held electronic device with 40-megabytes of built-in storage, an SD/MMC card slot for expandability, a 320x240 pixel color touch screen, and a rechargeable high-capacity internal battery. The unit features a built-in temperature sensor and microphone; additional sensors are available in a variety of kits.

LabQuest can be used as a computer interface or as a stand-alone device. The unit includes applications such as a periodic table and stopwatch, as well as built-in software for data collection, graphing, and analysis.

The device comes with 50 embedded science labs including instructions, figures, and data tables, in a variety of subject areas (biology, chemistry, physics, Earth science, water quality, advanced chemistry, physical science, and more). Pricing begins at $329.


Texas Instruments, Inc.

The CBL 2, the second-generation Calculator-Based Laboratory (CBL), is designed to help middle and high school science and math students collect and analyze data with more than 40 available sensors.

The CBL 2 Kit includes a stainless steel temperature probe, voltage probe, light probe, cradle system and 6" link cable, a Teacher Guide containing experiments for science and math, a TI resource CD, and four AA batteries.

Students can collect data without the calculator using auto-ID probes and then reconnect them to a calculator or computer to retrieve and analyze the data. Data can be collected with the push of two buttons using the Quick Setup feature and then stored in the flash memory. The unit connects to compatible TI education calculators and is compatible with Vernier probes.

PASPORT Xplorer Datalogger (PS-2000)


The PASPORT Xplorer Datalogger can be used in the classroom or in the field. In the classroom, students can collect real-time data and see it displayed instantly on their computer screens. In the field (or with few computers in the classroom), students can collect data and later download it to computers located elsewhere.

The Xplorer Datalogger features a single button to start and stop data collection, one-click downloading to a computer, and intuitive navigation buttons. The included DataStudio Lite software automatically launches, retrieves, and displays data.

The unit can be plugged into the USB port of a PC or Mac. The universal sensor port is compatible with all PASPORT and MultiMeasure sensors.

SPARK Science Learning System

PASCO scientific

The SPARK Science Learning System is a hand-held device that combines probeware with inquiry-based content and assessment. The unit features a large, full-color screen, finger-touch navigation (no stylus needed), two-button design, temperature and voltage sensors, and more than 60 preinstalled guided-inquiry SPARK labs.

The SPARK system allows the use of up to four sensors simultaneously and multiple displays on one screen (including two graphs, six digits or meters, and other combinations). Two USB ports allow connections to computers, printers, or USB flash drives. The SPARKlabs integrate background content, data collection, analysis, and assessment.

The system enables students to take and collect snapshots of work in progress to build their own journals with annotations as part of peer dialogue, classroom presentations, and assessment. The unit is available at an introductory price of $299 through
August 31, 2008.


Our school stopped doing dissections in elementary schools several years ago. The last year that dissections were done, the fifth grade dissected squids. The teacher left several unused squids in formaldehyde in a loosely-covered container in the faculty refrigerator over the weekend.

The smell spreading down the hall by the following Monday underscores the value of virtual dissection software and virtual experiments: no smell, no mess, fewer dead animals, and quite a savings over the long run. In addition, this type of software enables students to accomplish or watch dissections and experiments that might not be possible otherwise.

Electronic devices such as digital microscopes, probeware, and data loggers add to the possibilities. Some of these units are inexpensive and portable enough for students—even elementary students—to use in small groups. The collected data, graphs, photos, and videos can be used to create wonderful reports and presentations.

Science teachers could use some of the more expensive devices for excellent demonstrations. Some of these devices would also be great tools in preparing PowerPoint and other presentations for classroom use.

Charles Doe has been teaching for 37 years, including 20 years as a Title I reading specialist and 7 years as a media specialist. In addition to presenting and writing articles, he has been involved with computers in education for more than 20 years. He is also a longtime product reviewer for MultiMedia & Internet@Schools magazine. Communications to the author may be addressed to Charles Doe, Media Specialist, Hastings Area Schools, 232 W. Grand, Hastings, MI 49058 or

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