Ultramobile PCs to lead in 21st century science education

$2.8m project uses mobile computing to boost teens’ understanding of the world

An educational project in the U.K. is looking to combine mobile and desktop technology with classroom and real-world settings to boost young people's understanding of the world.

Conducted by researchers in the fields of education, educational technology, psychology and computer science, the project aims to help students aged between 11 and 14 learn through the use of handheld computer technology both in the classroom and at home.

The ultimate aim, researchers say, is to encourage students to take a more scientific approach to their daily lives.

"We now have the opportunity to guide children in doing 21st century science beyond the classroom," said project co-leader Mike Sharples, Director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute in the University of Nottingham's School of Education.

"They will be able to explore issues that matter to them, such as how to understand their bodies and keep fit, by carrying out explorations in their homes and discovery centres," he said. "Their mobile computers will coordinate the activities and help them to debate with their peers and experts."

Students will be educated on three themes - Myself, My Community, and My Environment - using an approach the researchers call 'scripted inquiry learning'. The themes were selected because they involve complex open-ended issues and are related to curriculum areas and students' daily lives, Sharples said.

As part of the scripted inquiry approach, students will be presented with topic-related multimedia material that aims to guide an investigation and explore differences in students' conceptions.

"The main role of the technology will be to structure their inquiry-led activities inside and outside the classroom, through personal devices that guide their investigations," Sharples said.

"It [the technology] has a key role in social education in helping children to understand their initial differences in conception around major issues of social concern and how they can reach consensus based on scientific approaches of collecting and examining evidence," he said.

The project, a collaboration between the University of Nottingham and the Open University, was recently awarded a research grant of £1,187,891 (AUD$2.8m) from the U.K'.s Economic and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Researchers will be developing a suite of software for students and teachers, which will run on desktop machines as well as on wireless handheld devices that researchers plan to provide for each child in the trial. Ultimately, the target device will be an ultra-mobile PC, Sharples said.

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