Google Spreadsheets in the Science Classroom

My sixth grade science class has really responded well to Google Apps. This is our second year in a 1:1 laptop program and I feel things are really humming along. We've used a variety of apps this year already, but have really focused on using Google Spreadsheets for our unit on chemistry. Physical sciences, as you might recall, is intensively laced with data and measurement and it's important to not merely generate data, but to share and discuss our findings to look for consistencies, inconsistencies, patterns, and outliers. I have a very specific benchmark related to this practice:

  • Communicate scientific procedures, data, and explanations to enable the replication of results. Use computer technology to assist in communicating these results. Critical review is important in the analysis of these results.
    Level: Important

Google Spreadsheets and other 2.0 interfaces can allow students to compare and contrast their work.

For the last week, students have been investigating properties of materials, namely density. We've been focusing on the question: "Does the density of a substance change if it's divided into pieces?" Of course, although each piece has a smaller mass than the mother piece, but proportionally less volume. This in turn, makes density independent of the amount of a substance. I'm astounded by the number of students that think ice floats is that it's lighter than water. Many adults too.

Comparing mass, volume and density through the sum of an objects parts

In the lab above, students in small groups investigated this relationship by measuring the mass and volume through displacements of irregularly shaped objects.They all copied a spreadsheet and then added their own data. Each group of 4-5 people added their data and collected it.

After they shared my document with me, I was able to have each groups data tabbed on my web browser so I could peruse their work. Any inconsistencies in data collection were immediately addressed. More subtle concepts like labeling with the proper units were as well. The old school way of doing this was on butcher paper, but in the case of math and statistics, multiple measurements are required to ensure reliability and replication of results.

Web 2.0 interfaces allow teachers to toggle between tabs of groups to provide feedback and monitor progress

At the end of the lesson, we were able to assemble at the front of class and address the data collection. It's so crucial that students have the correct data or otherwise they fail to connect concepts and build their understanding of a topic. Often, and inquiry based approach will yield findings that are incorrect and students don't "see" the concept they were meant to discover. 

Groups addressed inconsistencies in the data.
At the end of the lesson, each group presented their findings. In the case above, we brainstormed why a piece of modelling clay was broke into two parts and there was a piece that had less mass than the other piece but strangely, more volume. We were also curious why a crayon had different densities but saw that the sum of the volume did not add up to the whole. 

Spreadsheets also allow whole class collaboration for comparison

In short, if you teach math and science, consider applying Google Spreadsheets to data collection and analysis. It has some great application, notably the ability to:
  • Give timely feedback
  • Graph data
  • Provide a digital record of investigations for digital portfolios
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