By Laurel Scott
Introducing learning technology into the classroom does not always have to be an expensive prospect.
Many Angelo State faculty are moving beyond iPads, smart boards and other pricey devices as they explore free and low-cost software and hardware to enhance students’ education today and careers in the future.
Dr. Deborah Banker, represented by her “Professor Chatterbox” avatar, welcomes students to the Angelo State Island in the virtual world of Second Life.
Dr. Deborah Banker of ASU’s teacher education faculty uses the virtual world of the free Second Life software program to have her students experience what it is like to be schizophrenic or autistic.
The voices begin as soon as a student avatar moves down the virtual hallway into a waiting room, growing in volume from a whisper to a shout: “You’re worthless. Everyone hates you. You should be dead.”
“This is what a child is going to hear while they’re in your classroom, the voices, the noise,” Banker said. “We do have very young children with schizophrenia who are hearing voices already. I can show videos about schizophrenia or autism, but it doesn’t have the impact of Second Life and being there as an avatar.”
To use the program, students don an alter ego as an “avatar” and explore “islands” of experiences created by participating organizations or individuals. Banker created Angelo State Island with an Orientation Deck that guides her students as they virtually walk in the shoes of someone experiencing the mental and emotional issues of schizophrenia, including voices, hallucinations, delusions, attention and memory disorders, and more.
A specialist in assessment and special education, Banker was introduced to the immersive world of Second Life as a teaching tool six years ago. The schizophrenia and autism experiences were created by educators at the University of California-Davis and the University of Queensland, and Banker estimates it took her about two weeks to build Angelo State Island. Her future plans include another virtual island where her students can experience attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.
“With today’s students, it doesn’t work very well to just describe symptoms, to stand and deliver,” Banker said. “Second Life translates the data and information into an experience that students will remember.”
Launched in 2003, Second Life is free to download, but there is a cost to create the individual “islands.”
Dr. Nick Negovetich, an ASU assistant professor, creates graphs using free software to chart data faculty and students of the Biology Department are gathering on the rare Hemileuca slosseri moth.
When faculty and students in the ASU Biology Department wanted to study a rare moth, they turned to Dr. Nick Negovetich for his skills using a software program called R.
A free program for statistical computing and graphics, R is part of the “open source” software community that encourages users to refine and augment the original code to improve the program for everyone. Negovetich, an assistant professor of biology, is teaching ASU students how to use the powerful program for projects like their study of the rare moth, Hemileuca slosseri.
“This moth was only identified in 1989, so it’s considered a new species of moth,” Negovetich said. “There’s not a whole lot of information about the basic ecology of this moth.”
Found in the shin oaks near Andrews, Hemileuca slosseri inspired Negovetich, fellow faculty member Dr. Ned Strenth and several students to painstakingly search the area for hatched and unhatched egg cases to create a set of data.
Two egg cases for the Hemileuca slosseri, the one on the right is hatched.
“We were looking at spatial distribution, related to a question of whether the hatched eggs attract the female moths,” Negovetich said. “If you find a hatched egg, are you more likely to find an unhatched egg? Is there an attraction?”
They then used the R program to illustrate their findings with two graphs.
“Stastitically, what we’ll do is look at all distances relative to a single point,” Negovetich said. “In a lot of ways, it’s similar to a Rand McNally map, the section listing cities with the distances. You can go down one column and across another to find the distances. We’ll be able to do that to see if there is evidence of attraction.”
“Maybe there is no attraction,” he continued. “Maybe it’s related to environmental factors. Maybe the leaves closer to the roads taste better. We’re in the very early stages of exploring these questions.”
Negovetich first used the R program while working on his doctorate at Wake Forest University. Now he hopes his students will also learn the value of open-source software, and R in particular.
“No. 1, it’s free, so students can download and install a fully functional statistical suite on their home laptops or desktops,” Negovetich said. “No. 2, as open-source software, it is growing. So even if there’s something it can’t do now, two or three years down the road there could be a module designed that will do what it doesn’t do now.”
Most importantly, Negovetich feels the ability to use R can benefit biology students as they move on to graduate school or careers in such fields as fish and game and wildlife management.
“By learning R,” he said, “our students will become a little bit more marketable.”
ASU graduate assistant Patty Rush works with fourth-graders on weather-related science concepts in a Climate Camp held in the summer of 2013.
Science and technology have long been entwined and they remain so in ASU’s Climate Camps.
Funded by an Earth System Science for Elementary Teachers Grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the camps are designed to teach elementary school teachers new ways to teach weather-related science concepts. One key element is to identify and educate the teachers about various tech tools, including laptops, websites, iPads, apps and the Zoomy Handheld Digital Microscope, that can help them both during the camps and in their classrooms.
The inaugural Climate Camp last summer was directed by Dr. Christine Purkiss, associate professor of teacher education.
“We get a lot of teacher education students who are very science-phobic,” Purkiss said. “This kind of stuff, allowing them to use devices as a way of gathering information, helps with that.”
The initial camp brought together 28 area teachers with nearly 100 schoolchildren, as well as ASU teacher education students serving as camp counselors. The Zoomys, used to study tree rings for signs of weather changes over the years, were a particular hit.
“Little kids are connected to technology,” Purkiss said. “They’re showing that they’re learners. The kids were encouraged to play with the microscopes and found creative ways to use them, like looking at the fiber of their pants and the whorls on their fingertips. Best of all, the kids remembered and talked about the experience.”
The teachers also found the $60 Zoomy a useful tool. It can magnify objects up to 43 times and can record video or still photos and project the images on smart boards or through projectors.
“To use technology in your classroom, you have to be able to take the risk of not knowing what you’re doing,” Purkiss said. “I learn all the time from my students, watching what they do with what we give them.”
And, these are just a few examples of how ASU faculty are enhancing their courses with available resources that students can also access at little or no cost. It does not have to be expensive to be effective.