New digital teaching tools may outlive the pandemic

A simulated experiment about the property of lens using the Gizmos website — March 15, 2021

In the “Advanced Physics*” class this year, students do not hold rulers, stopwatches, or multimeters in their hands. Instead, they engage in simulations and interact with videos of the experiments and analyze data on their computer screen. 

     During the unprecedented pandemic, Haverford’s teachers have to follow the health protocols and prepare for intermittent school closures such as the ones around Thanksgiving and winter break. The faculty members who teach STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) classes face even more challenges. The explorative and collaborative nature of those disciplines makes the restriction of in-person contact and paper materials a major challenge in ensuring the course’s normal proceedings. As a result, teachers need to devote extra effort to design alternatives for conventional lab activities, homework assignments. 

     Fortunately, new digital teaching tools can help. 

     “The challenge is that I can’t put lab equipment in your hands,” biology and physics teacher Ms. Carol O’Brien said. “Having PhET, Gizmos, and Pivot’s data allows you to approximate the experience the best we can under these circumstances.”

     PhET Colorado, Gizmos, and Pivot are all applications that provide online lab simulations to educators and students. These digital tools have helped the science department overcome the current challenges. 

     “I think they are all useful for different classes and purposes,” Science Department Chair Dr. Daniel Goduti said. “Pivot Interactive is really helpful, especially for physics classes, because it’s so focused on real data.”

Some pages of notes and assignments in the software OneNote are displayed on a tablet — March 15, 2021

     The need for increased use of digital tools not only stays in the science department. Teachers in the mathematics department also integrate more online tools for collaboration in their classes.

     “I had a lot of students use Jamboard, which is like a whiteboard writing tool,” math teacher Ms. Barb LaPenta said, “and I had students create posters through Google Slides.” 

     Besides the new tools, teachers also access tools already used in many Haverford courses. A notable example is the note-taking and sharing software OneNote.  

     “This year I have been using OneNote to manage my courses and post almost all of the materials,” math teacher Dr. Mark Gottlieb said. “A lot of people are using OneNote as a major teaching tool, and I will probably continue to use it. It’s more convenient.”

     Of course, the professionally developed websites are subject to some limitations, but teachers generally appreciate their helpfulness.

“[Gizmos] has some built-in simulation tools that I could use to demonstrate things I don’t have equipment for.”

Ms. Carol O’Brien

     “I think Gizmos is really helpful for conceptual-style stuff; it works well in biology and chemistry class,” Dr. Goduti said, “but it’s not based on any experimental observations. So you lose a little, but I also think you have gained by having students thinking more about what is actually happening versus managing all the parts of an experiment.”

     The digital tools can provide more than just assistance. Ms. LaPenta hopes to keep some of the structural changes of her classes.

     “Instead of doing homework in which you are doing problems, you are actually learning the material. My students just watch videos for homework now,” Ms. LaPenta said, “and I think I’m going to keep that moving forward.”

     In addition, the flexibility of digital teaching tools also offers students and teachers extra convenience in the post-pandemic world.

     “[Gizmos] has some built-in simulation tools that I could use to demonstrate things I don’t have equipment for,” Ms. O’Brien said. “When the equipment is too expensive, we can still get that experience.”