17 January 2005

Playing with Science

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In Athens, Greece, a new technology is revolutionising the teaching of science, aiming to increase the number of students choosing a scientific career path

At the Ellinogermaniki Agogi School, near Athens, new technology is revolutionising the teaching of science. The European ‘Lab of Tomorrow’ project aims to increase the number of students choosing a scientific career path.

A secondary school class is playing football in the gym. It is not a physical education lesson, but a physics one. The ball is equipped with sensors that record the power of the kick. Which of the students is going to win the power competition? The computer will be the judge. As a matter of fact, at the end of the match, data is sent to a computer, and compares the information in graphic form. In this new and exciting way, children will have learnt about the theory of strength in physics.

In another classroom, a teacher and five pupils are wearing special gloves pairs of glasses. With these aids, they are lifting ‘virtual’ objects. It’s a geometry class in 3-D. In a class next door, fifteen year-old students are remotely operating a robotic telescope through the Internet. They are preparing to take pictures of Saturn, which will be taken that night. Tomorrow they will be able to measure the planet’s diameter.

In this way, through direct experience which makes sciences more appealing to the young, the educational team aims to motivate students to choose a scientific path in their future career.

Nowadays, throughout Europe, scientific universities and institutions complain about the shortage of students. The threat for Europe then is the probable lack of scientists and, consequently, a stall in R&D. “There is a deficit of 700,000 scientists and technologists in Europe, and we need to produce them. The educational systems of the different countries have to produce them. Innovations and projects like ‘Lab of Tomorrow’ are really focusing on this point because they are targeting students at the age where their interest is really going down”, explains Sofoklis Sotiriou, the Head of the Research and Development department.

There’s a noticeable lack of motivation among students from primary school level. This is mainly because students are taught in conservative and outdated teaching styles, which have hardly changed over the last few decades. “If you start from primary school you will see that the students have very high interest in science ‘til 12, 13 years old. When they are 15, 16 this interest is goes down”, observes Mr Sotiriou.

Aware of such a problem, the European Union is supporting the integration of new technologies into teaching, like the applications of Lab of Tomorrow. These include portable technologies, augmented and virtual reality tools, as well as robotic and smart devices. Rapid advances in educational technologies enable new learning environments using simulations, visualization, immersive environments, game playing, and distance learning.

The pedagogical rationale behind ‘Lab of Tomorrow’ is one of social constructivist theories of learning. They conceive of an education programme that is more closely related to real life conditions and the social world in which pupils live.

Today, this technology is already being used in different European cities, including Vienna and Athens. This could be the first step towards the renovation of outdated educational programmes. Science teachers hope to motivate their pupils and guarantee the quality and quantity of scientific research in Europe for years to come.


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