Posts Tagged ‘Making Meaning’

Making Meaning – Step by Step with Vital Signs – Review

May 3rd, 2010 Comments off

April 29th sessions recorded:



MLTI is proud to partner with Gulf of Maine Research Institute’s Vital Signs initiative, a  program that encompasses technology, content and pedagogy using inquiry-based learning. Incorporating the four strands of science learning to deal with essential questions regarding invasive species, Vital Signs offers teachers and students a way to be real scientists dealing with real observations and data.

Vital signs website,, provides a rich environment that allows users to set up accounts so they can add to the data and make comments on fellow citizen-scientists’ observations. However, even if you do not register, you can access the ever-expanding datasets about invasive species through the Expore Data tab.

After formulating an essential question, a user can set up a useful query using the Advanced Search feature. The results of the search can then be downloaded as a CSV (comma separated values) file and inserted into a spreadsheet like Numbers, using the Sort and Export feature.

Once in the spreadsheet, pertinent data can be specified by deleting the extraneous data columns. Then charts and graphs can be made using the appropriate data.

Even better, Google Fusion Tables,, can be used to take the latitude and longitude data to place information on a map, and then export the map as a layer (KML) into Google Earth. Wow!

This is just a general overview. The specific steps are outlined in a document available at

The four strands of science learning are explained in Ready, Set, Science:

Making Meaning – Presenting Reality – 2/4/10

February 5th, 2010 Comments off

Making Meaning – Presenting Reality: Data, Spreadsheets, and Databases

Recordings for the sessions are available here:



What is/are Data?

I used to teach my middle school students that data are observable facts.  In most cases, data are results of measurement as one form of observation. I guess you could state that these would be quantitative representations of reality. On the other hand, data can represent qualitative observations of reality as well.

If we were to get deeply philosophical about data, we could look at how data are related to information and knowledge. In this way, we can look at levels of meaning. Data all by themselves really have no meaning – they just exist, regardless of whether they have been measured or observed.

Data that has been given some relativity or relevance by an observer or collector becomes information. To provide context think of how the word information is used in terms like: information processor, information technology, information desk. In each case data are given some kind of context and that context provides meaning. As educators, we try to help students find that meaning from data. Think of the difference between an almanac and a textbook. An almanac is a collection of data, a textbook by itself offers information.

To go one step beyond, to reach the level of knowledge, it is necessary to provide avenues of larger context, even context that doesn’t exist yet. How sets of information exist as links to each other and how those links can be retained in context provides a much broader and deeper meaning as knowledge. Again, as educators in an inquiry-based classroom, we provide opportunities for students to gather both data and information, find the relationships, and incorporate it all into knowledge. Think of using an almanac to get the data on an area’s climate, and compare different area climates for a set of information about world climate. By relating those sets of information about climates to special features about the areas, you can construct knowledge of biomes.

All this explanation helps us to understand that there is a continuum of abstraction that reaches from the lowest level of abstraction, data; through a higher level, information; to the highest level, knowledge.

Entering Data

So, as teachers, we try to do what we can to help the students derive meaning from data. But first, we have to get that data. So, let’s take a look at what we can do to collect data.

Of course, there is the old observe and record method. Just look and take notes on paper. We can always use a computer to log our notes, as well.  NoteShare can do this very well, whether the data is in text, numerical, image or audio form.One method that can save a lot of trouble and focus on the data we want folks to work with, would be to fill out forms. You know, the old Last Name First routine. Probably most of the forms you filled out were on paper, but the data on those paper forms probably made their way into a computer somewhere to become part of a database.

You could always type the data directly into a spreadsheet, cell by cell. Or you could employ probes or sensors to get immediate real-time data into some form of collector, be it spreadsheet, graph, or database.


Way back when in prehistoric times, 1980, VisiCalc was the killer app. It was one of the progenitors of the personal computer revolution. It was simple – a ledger type format that allowed mass formulaic calculations and showed graphs. Wow! Now the idea has evolved into an integral part of office suites of applications, like Excel in MS Office, Numbers in iWork, and the like, such as NeoOffice and OpenOffice. There’s even a spreadsheet in Google Apps.

Spreadsheets incorporate data entry, either manually or by forms. Remember, these data have no meaning unto themselves. Most good spreadsheets allow you to design forms for users to input data so they won’t be put off by the look and expanse of a spreadsheet – sort of “the man behind the curtain” thing. In a way, the given choices of data to enter add some meaning and point the way to information.

Data can be manipulated in spreadsheets, too. Even the most rudimentary spreadsheets have many formulas that allow you to play with your data in a meaningful way. This is another example of the transition from data to information. The relationships among the data add meaning.

Finally, the data can be analyzed, as well. People who are lucky enough to look at numbers and see trends can glean a lot just by looking at the resultant values. However, spreadsheets can take those results and add even more meaning by turning those values into graphs and charts. Visualization helps to lead the way to knowledge and makes the extraction of meaning easier.

Science Example

Let’s take a look at an example of spreadsheets in science. First we see the blank template for data entry. Next, students visit the US Naval Observatory website to get sunrise and sunset data for their locale. They then enter the data into the spreadsheet. So far – it’s just data with no meaning yet.

Next, the formulae in the spreadsheet calculate the length of sunlight for the dates selected. A sharp person can see the trend in the resultant values. Next, a bar graph that displays the duration of the daylight in a visual form allows students to see what is happening. This is information derived from the data.

The final steps would be to provide context that leads to knowledge. That context could be lecture, comparing graphs, or other forms of synthesis.

So, spreadsheets present opportunities to deal with reality at a number of different levels and can make meaning for students.

Probes, Sensors and real time data entry

A very powerful way to leap from data to information to knowledge is exemplified by two applications on the MLTI MacBook: Data Studio and Logger Pro. The key feature of applications like them is using probes or sensors to monitor a system. The probe continually reads the data it is designed for (temperature, distance, force, etc.) and enters them into a spreadsheet or graph.

The graph instantly relates time and the data collected and displays that relationship. Multiple sets of data can be monitored at once, like temperature, air pressure, humidity, and altitude to immediately show how they might be related. Instant meaning! Both companies supply learning experiences with their probeware and software, usually in bundles, and even ways to construct your own activities.

Here’s an example of a “workbook” from PASCO. Teachers can put together workbooks they way they might use a word processor. These workbooks provide for forms for data entry, along with real time data collection from the probeware.

Databases and Management

In general, you can think of a database as a large collection of data, sorted by records and fields. Think of a bank of filing cabinets, with file folders (fields) that contain data (records.)

There are thousands, if not millions, of databases floating around the internet and on company servers. They are very useful, but only with some form of data entry and retrieval. Most folks use some kind of database management software (DBMS) to get reports that extract data in a form that is meaningful and useful. Again, providing a context to observe the data.

Most of us will not be creating databases, but we can all access incredible amounts of data from databases in our district or on the web. Your school most likely uses a Student Information System, like Powerschool or Infinite Campus. These are ways to interact with databases. You have probably entered data into the system, and retrieved information that you wanted.

Those of you who use MARVEL! (and I hope that is a great number of you) are interacting with a collection of databases in ways that are helpful in your students’ and your own research and information retrieval.

PASCO’s MyWorld is a Geographic Information System (GIS) application that loads a database into the system and relates the data to geographic data to help visualize how place is related to data or phenomena. ESRI’s Arc Explorer is a more widely used GIS application and is available as a free download.

There are all sorts of databases for all sorts of data:

like this one from the US Census Bureau

or this one from the CIA (spooky, huh?) for information like an almanac

or this one from OECD for education with a global spin:

or this one from NOAA

Other Resources

Using Numbers to investigate the meaning of Pi

Daylight lesson for Excel

Pasco resources page

Logger Pro Labs

Arc Explorer

Activities for MyWorld

Making Meaning: Dec. 17 Webinar Notes

December 19th, 2009 Comments off

This webinar was an introduction to modeling and simulation tools that are web-based, free downloads, or a part of the MLTI image. Future webinars will take a deeper look at these tools, but in the meantime you may want to download some of them and give them a try. These are the tools that were discussed or mentioned, organized according to the three modes of Bruner‘s theory of constructivism.




As you explore these tools and think about possible classroom uses, please share  your ideas with us in the comments section.

Making Meaning: Creating Reality

December 14th, 2009 Comments off

Many folks might tell you that the difference between the Web and Web 2.0 is simple: You can interact with the Web; you create with Web 2.0. If you buy that, then this webinar is about Reality 2.0 – the reality you “create.” How can you create reality? By using modeling tools or programming. This webinar is a quick introduction to tools like Line Rider, programming languages like Squeak, Scratch and Alice, and the “Program a Bunny” activity in Maine Explorer. Before you tell yourself this is not your cup of tea, be assured that you, as a teacher, do not have to teach your students how to program. All that we are doing is showing you the power of expression that these tools can give your students. After inviting them to see what is possible, you may want to allow them to show evidence of learning content using one of these tools, along with other artifacts. Many teachers have seen students exhibit an incredible amount of engagement as they “play” with these tools, displaying higher level thinking  and problem solving skills. Who knows? You might find the same level of “hard fun” yourself!

Representing Reality (11/12/09 webinar)

November 15th, 2009 Comments off

Notes from Webinar 11/12/2009

Afternoon session recording:

Evening session recording:

Representing Reality

Models & Simulations in the Classroom

When I was working with Commodore in 1980, I read Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas by Seymour Papert. (He’s the godfather of MLTI.) His ideas made me think deeply about the potential of computers, After all, he worked with Piaget. He taught folks how to program by first learning how to juggle, showing how simple steps can lead to complex outcomes. He also thought that learning should be “hard fun.” However, the idea that really made me think was the capacity of the computer to “concretize the abstract” – pushing the formal operations stage.

Alan Kay realized the potential as well in 1990:

“…[the computer] is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically … it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated.” (Sunrise Notes Number 2, June 1990, p.29)

Gary Stager restated this in his article “Cut the Cord – How Networks are Making Schools Stupid” for the December 2001 issue of District Administration:

“We have forgotten what computers do best. They make things, facilitate communication and support the social construction of knowledge. Computers mediate a conversation between the user and herself. They concretize the abstract. On the other hand, most school applications of the net are curriculum or teacher-centered – designed to transfer information to unsuspecting or unwilling children.”

So now we have the potential to reach out to the abstract and interact with it

What are the implications? By using models and simulations, students can watch changes over larger (or tinier) areas or time spans than they could have observed personally. Examples might include weather and geological phenomena, or atomic and molecular interactions. By using simulations based on accepted models, students can interact with them and observe the effects of their interactions. In many cases, simulations in science can be used to “do” labs that might be unsafe or unavailable, like dissections or chemistry labs.

Before we go any further we should probably investigate what models and simulations are, and how they differ from reality.


Definition from

“Graphical, mathematical (symbolic), physical, or verbal representation or simplified version of a concept, phenomenon, relationship, structure, system, or an aspect of the real world.” 

If we boil the definition down we can see 3 important ideas: Representation, simplified, real world. In many ways, it is the simplification that can give meaning to a model, focusing on particular concepts or meaning.

But we are constantly making our own mental or conceptual models as we deal with the real world, and try to make sense of how it works. Because we are often limited in our observations or perceptions, we are prone to misconceptions. Allowing students to observe accurate models helps to correct those misconceptions


Good learning simulations are based on accepted models. They enable teachers to efficiently deal with complex information by immersing learners in realistic situations which allow them to “learn by doing”. These simulations provide valuable experiential learning by enabling users to practice the tasks they need to master and experience the results of their actions in a safe and supportive environment. They vary in their complexity and interactions and again depend on variables. Simulations do not give a perfect set of real world variables, because the real world is “fuzzy,” with random and chaotic factors.

Perhaps the most powerful pedagogical implications might be that the learning becomes student-centered and inquiry-based. They provide an opportunity to experience phenomena to replace their misconceptions, leading to an even stronger conceptual construct.

Oregon Trail flash – Online version, for those of you who remember the old Apple IIe simulation.Many schools have expanded the experience to have students roleplay, write diaries and build models of Conestoga Wagons.

Do I have a right? – A simulation where you are part of a law firm. Clients come in with scenarios that may or may not be covered by the Bill of Rights. You research and let them know whether they have a case.

FrogutsVirtual dissection of a frog. Schools can purchase site licenses.

Circuit Construction Kit – Use a toolkit to build circuits and test them. Good inquiry – part of a whole panoply of simulations from PhET. 

Virtual Lab – Simulations of chemical reactions with selected substances.

SimCity A classic complex simulation, SimCity was actually one of the requirements for National Board Certification for a few years, to help teachers understand another way to learn.


Since the model or simulation is a simplified representation of the real world, it is important to acknowledge the assumptions behind the model. The real world has many different variables, and designers pick which ones to include in their models. 

NetLogo is an example of building models and simulations and playing with the variables. It is powerful, utilitarian, but teachers would have to design appropriate curriculum around a model or simulation. NetLogo includes an information tab to explain the “so what?” and “how” of the model, and a tab to look at the source code, too (to play with the underlying assumptions.)

Net Logo – Wolf Sheep PredationWith this model from the library, students can observe the classic predator/prey relationship, and then use sliders to “play” with variables like reproduction rates, energy gains, and amount of food.

With any instructional design, a teacher must decide whether the chosen simulation is being used for introduction, concept development, skill building, reinforcement or extension. Another factor to consider is time…as with any inquiry-based activity, a teacher must decide how deep a conceptual understanding must go. As always, the question rests on the goals of teaching and learning in your school and classroom. 

EcoBeaker Maine Explorer was developed with his in mind. Here is the Maine DOE iTunesU site with podcasts from EcoScienceWorks:

EcoScienceWorks iTunes U site (Maine Department of Education):

Topic Resources:

Online Westward version of Oregon Trail

Old Oregon Trail flash version from Apple IIe

Westward Ho!

Lewis and Clark

Our Courts Game page

Froguts home

Simulations from PhET

NetLogo Home

TPACK wiki

TPACK and its relation to SAMR – presentation by Dr. Ruben Puentadura

Maine Department of Education iTunesU site – many resources


FreeCiv – a free “Civilization” clone

Pithy Quotes 

Simulation: “…techniques which aim to provide the student with a highly simplified reproduction of part of a real or imaginary world”.

van Ments, M., The Effective Use of Role Play: A Handbook for Teachers & Trainers. Revised ed. 1989, New York: Nichols Publishing. 186.

“…the aim is to recreate or represent in a limited time in the classroom particular situations which exist in the world outside…often using a computer program which incorporates the model on which the simulation is based.”

Reynolds, M. (1994) Groupwork in Education and Training Ideas in Practice, London: Kogan Page, pp18-19.

Simulations are “…one of the most effective ways to promote deep conceptual understanding of the real world”.

Peter Miller, Christina Smart, and Jacqui Nicol, Economics Centre of the Learning and Teaching Support Network (UK)

“Placing a student in a simulated environment means they become involved. They view their experiences in a personal way…. From this they gain an attachment that can be shaped into a true learning experience.”

Rick Effland, Maricopa Community College

“Simulations can be a powerful education tool. The problem is that using simulations in education is different from “reality” and that simulations effect the user.”

Kevin Cox, Simulations in Education, Web Tools Newsletter, 30th July 1999