Interview | Smart Scientist Harry Keller

For more than a century, it’s been a controversial topic among scientists and educators: what is the correct way to teach science? These days, meet Harry Keller, who claims his solution is the first to achieve this goal with a scalable, inexpensive means that dramatically improves test scores. He calls it Smart Science® online lab units, and he didn’t do it alone. In fact, his patent has three names in addition to his own: Jayne, Caroline and Edward. “Our entire family contributed,” says Harry. Read more about how this came to be, why Harry thinks it’s a smart idea, and what his thoughts are about Arne Duncan, Carl Sagan, the history of science and education—and what the future holds—in this in-depth look at the creation of a true solution for a vital area of education. This is a fascinating read—so grab your coffee and hold on—here’s Harry…

Victor: Why did you create Smart Science® Education?

Harry: Our goals were to

(a) improve science education,

(b) enable poorer schools to have quality science education,

(c) teach good thinking skills, and

(d) create a successful business dedicated to the above goals.

Knowing that we would not be able to improve science education by reducing class size or making the requirements for becoming a teacher more stringent or any other such program, we focused on what we can do and do well.

We, my partner and I, decided to make class size less important, to make teacher science training less significant, and school budgets less crucial to the success of science education in schools.

We reasoned that if we could capture the essence of great science lab experiences in software, then we could create a product that would improve science education while saving money for many schools.

Our research also showed that better science education would also develop critical thinking skills. Scientific thinking is neither natural nor intuitive, but it can be learned.

Victor: What does the name mean?

Harry: Very simply, the name means that this technology provides a smart way to learn science, especially understanding the nature of science and developing scientific thinking skills. It was because my daughter is a really talented IP attorney who graduated from MIT, that we were able to register this mark. She also wrote some of the original computer code.

Victor: What is it? Who created it?

Harry: We built Smart Science technology on two crucial factors:  (a) interactive data collection from real world videos with students using their own care and judgment and (b) science processes as exemplified by making predictions prior to experimentation and
comparing results to predictions.  We amplified these basic concepts with extensive supporting materials and a considerable expansion of the means for data collection from real-world experiment videos.

Our “cloud computing” model makes our system unusual. This term didn’t even exist in 1998.  We believed that only by capturing all student work and making it available at any Internet computer could we deliver a quality science experience.  This approach meant that teachers could review students’ actual work and not just a lab report that might well contain made-up data.

Since then, we’ve added the means for downloading completed lab reports as PDF files and for teachers to enter their comments directly onto the lab reports as well as assign them a grade online.  The teacher-only pages include registration that allows teachers to set up classes, to add and drop students, to choose differentiated reading levels, and to customize the labs.  They also have extensive reporting on classes and students plus an “Activity Plan” page with all of the material in each lab unit including fully worked-out answers to all quiz questions and model lab reports.

I initially came up with the idea and was aided in its expansion by my partner (and wife), Jayne. We have been partners since incorporating in 1983. We worked with our daughter (an MIT graduate) Caroline and our son (a Brown physics graduate) Ed to create the prototype, which was demonstrated to the first school in 1999.

Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?

Harry: In simple terms, Smart Science education allows students to have an authentic science laboratory investigation experience entirely over the Internet through the use of Java applets and prerecorded videos of real experiments.

On one hand, this technology means that millions of students can have these authentic experiences without high cost, long time investment, safety issues, use of large spaces, supervisory issues, planning and equipment issues, and the like.

On the other hand, students can learn to understand the nature of science, develop scientific thinking skills, and evolve an appreciation of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work, things that normally would require the best of hands-on science labs presented in an optimal fashion.

The three benefits from the preceding paragraph are either difficult or nearly impossible to provide in a course with no lab experience. Only by actually doing science will students learn these things. These three goals match three of the seven goals presented in America’s Lab Report and, with the sole exception of learning to use lab equipment (one of the aspects of learning practical skills), are the only ones that require lab experience to realize fully.

Furthermore, these skills represent the lasting knowledge that students should take away from their science courses. Long after they’ve forgotten the stages of mitosis, they should be using scientific thinking in their everyday life and using their understanding of the nature of science to interpret news reports related to science such as energy dependence, overuse of antibiotics, and global warming so that they can make informed decisions on such controversial topics.

As I mentioned earlier, the science lab is where real thinking takes place in science courses. You can look up science content and can acquire the other goals of America’s Lab Report in other classes as well as in science. A good lab experience turns a science class from memory and drill into the real thing, a class where students learn science.

Smart Science education provides an inexpensive, efficient, safe, and effective means to realize the most important values of teaching science in K-13 classes.  Your teachers don’t even have to be trained.  Students complete Smart Science labs entirely on their own.

Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?

Harry: No other online science learning system provides a complete and authentic science lab investigation experience—even after ten years of marketing our system.  When we talk to science educators, most immediately recognize both the uniqueness of Smart Science education and its pedagogical value.

Because old ones drop out of sight and new ones appear from year to year, you should just use an Internet search engine to find other companies in the same market.  Due to very tight budgets now, just about any science department expense is a competitor.  In a sense, the concept of dropping science lab experiences entirely competes with our approach of providing those labs in a novel way. Even textbooks compete for dollars with labs.

Other companies that market to the K-13 science lab community include those providing lab kits, animated simulations (which they inaccurately term “virtual labs”), probeware, and remote real-time experiments. Traditional in-class hands-on labs also compete in their own way with what we do because the costs of equipment, equipment maintenance, and consumables use up scarce science budget money. Each of these has its own particular strengths and weaknesses.

Lab Kits. Lab kits tend to be expensive and limited in scope. Some lab kit labs are not even real. With adequate supervision, the real ones can provide a decent lab experience.  As with any hands-on labs, time and safety are factors.

Animated Simulations. The primary issue with animated simulations as lab substitutes is that they are not really science lab experiences at all as defined in America’s Lab Report.  They misrepresent science because they show a very simplified and unnaturally precise science.  They aren’t even interactive.  It’s quite possible to mimic an animated simulation with a DVD on a player, an experience that few would call interactive.

The above comments refer only to substituting animated simulations for actual science lab experiences.  Just as science textbooks and science videos can help students acquire understanding of science concepts, so can simulations if presented properly.

Probeware. “Probeware,” a computer or, these days, hand-held computing device attached to a probe — temperature, speed, force, pressure, etc.,  automatically collects a sequence of data, and displays it graphically.  Probeware isolates students from some crucial aspects of learning the nature of science by making the data collection process automatic and invisible.

Remote Real-Time Experiments. MIT and some other institutions have created a new way for students to do science, the remote real-time lab.  Many laboratory instruments can be programmed remotely these days and can output their data in digital form.  The data are real.

Most of these experiments developed so far are engineering, not science, experiments.  The scope of these online real-time experiments is limited.  Generally, students do not see the experiment.  The data are captured automatically and sent back as data tables to students for analysis leavning the user disconnect from the experiments.

Traditional Hands-On Labs. These should be the “gold standard” against which any other approach may be compared.  However, according to America’s Lab Report, the typical American high school science lab experience is “poor.”  That report explains why in considerable detail.  Curiously, these reasons have been known and documented for about a century.  Yet, they persist.

Labs fail for various reasons:  because they are poorly coordinated with the rest of the course, because the students are told the answer to expect before entering the lab (a “verification lab”), and because the lab contains no inquiry, exploration, or discovery at all as is the case with some “technique” labs that focus solely on equipment manipulation. They need not be that way.

Hands-on labs should be well-planned and executed inquiry experiments. When combined with Smart Science labs, the combination should be unbeatable, and many of our labs have a built-in hands-on component.

Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?

Harry: The Smart Science technology was invented in the late 1990s. We spent hours in the California Institute of Technology Millikan Library researching the history of science laboratories and the theories of science education. As a lifetime alumni association member, I had unrestricted access to the library. We read many books ranging from a century ago to the present. Our research led us to the conclusion that science education must engage the students’ minds in inquiry, exploration, and discovery. Only in this way would students develop an understanding of science.

One of the most fascinating bits of information we gleaned from our research is that people knew quite well how best to teach science a century ago. That approach has been repeatedly proclaimed as something new since then. Yet, it never seems to catch on here. I think that the requirements for success caused this failure. Classes must be very small, and teachers must be highly trained and skilled in science as well as in education.

In Finland, the middle school science classes are limited to 16 and teachers must pass rigorous screening. All must have a master’s degree in a program in which only 10 percent of applicants are accepted. Those classes have some sort of lab activity very frequently compared to the U.S. Finland scores near the top in the PISA tests, while the U.S. occupies the middle, well below Finland.

From our library research and from the previously described concept of recording experiments for later interactive analysis by students came the basic concepts embodied in our patent. As we created the initial prototype, we wrestled with numerous decisions.  Interest by Intel Corporation and a visit there resulted in the expansion of our system to include formative and summative assessments and an online lab report that includes all of the data collected.

As we considered our prototype and showed it to others, we added a number of important features. One of these is a unique method of presenting captured data in the lab report. Ordinarily, data is presented in a table and in a graph. We added another means of showing the data:  an experiment image showing the data points collected from the video.

This display added an important dimension to the data display that would not require students to return to data collection to understand what they were looking at. It also allows teachers to instantly see how students collected data and know that they were engaged in obtaining data.

We enjoy continually finding innovative ways to make Smart Science education serve students and teachers better.

Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?

Harry: We built Smart Science education ourselves by hand.  We purchased the necessary Sunfire servers and use Open Solaris along with Apache, Tomcat, and Java to create our system. The dynamically generated HTML pages use CSS and Javascript to provide the optimal student experience.  Java applets make important parts of the experience highly interactive.

Our company, Paracomp, Inc., markets and sells subscriptions to all of our markets:  traditional schools, online schools, colleges and universities, and home schools.  You can find information for the first three markets at www.smartscience.net and for home schools and other individual subscriptions at www.smartscienceonline.com.

Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?

Harry: Costs vary depending upon market because our delivery and support costs also depend on the market. A K-12 online school can purchase subscriptions in bulk for $10 per student per course regardless of the number of lab units included in the subscription.  Home schools can purchase a set of Smart Science labs appropriate to a student’s age and subject for between $49.95 and $89.95.

Victor: What are some examples of it in action?

Harry: You can see a screen-captured and narrated video of the system in action at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZr9A4BFWEo.

Any educator can find a demo request form on our site and submit a request.  We review every request and provide appropriate demo accounts to qualified people.

One NYC school with over half of its student body receiving free or partially paid lunch had a 50 percent pass rate on the Regents science exams despite having an incredible science faculty. They added Smart Science labs as homework to all Regents science classes. Within twelve months, the pass rate increased to 66 percent.

Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?

Harry: Smart Science education has been designed to be a valuable resource for grades K-13.  It is not designed for those college students majoring in science, although it can function as an excellent study aid.  Those students must have as much real lab time as practical.

Smart Science education is for anyone who would like to have a better understanding of science and better thinking skills.

Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Harry: Science education in America has languished of late. For three decades, the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation plus others have spent billions of dollars to improve science education. Gains have been spotty and/or short-lived. You might say that they’ve failed. Remember “Goals 2000: Educate America Act.”  Those goals have yet to be realized.

More recently, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was announced with great fanfare.  From my viewpoint, as a science education specialist, it’s been a disaster. This act not only siphoned money away from cash-strapped school budgets, it also focuses exclusively on math and literacy goals. Time and money were taken from science education and transferred to reading, writing, and arithmetic drills without considering the children. In a sense, every child was left behind.

Lately, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been pushing his attempts to improve education. President Obama makes strong statements about innovation and education.  I’m waiting for results. If history is any guide, we won’t see them because innovation and the education establishment, including the Department of Education, are like oil and water.  The Race to the Top (RTTT) was a political program. It got results; state legislatures changed laws to conform more closely to Secretary Duncan’s vision of the structure of educational institutions.

The new national core standards can make a difference. Having 51 or so different sets of standards makes creating materials for education very expensive if you’re selling to the entire nation. A common place from which to start for all education agencies will help us all. These standards need not stifle innovation. They merely provide a common base from which to innovate.  Finland, a big science education success story, has national standards that are used as guidelines for creating curricula.

Real innovation in education is more likely to save money than to increase education costs.  It’s likely not to occupy a prominent place in classrooms. It will engage rather than entertain students. It will not lecture them or drill them. The future of education will move in a more student-centered direction with greater emphasis on individualized instruction and adaptive programs.

Today, too many students learn only how to pass tests. Better teachers are frustrated when students demand the answer with no concern about why it’s the answer. One student using Smart Science education complained to me that she couldn’t find the answer to a question anywhere in our materials. That moment proved to me that I was doing something right.  She only had to be able to connect a couple of separate ideas in those materials, but she expected to be able to copy from here to there to answer test questions.

The teachers’ union issues that so many discuss are complex. The only clear result of all of this discussion is that we must have change. I would like to see all teachers have a real understanding of technology. I know that some technology in education was oversold and resulted in buyer’s remorse and a reticence to do it again. Yet, given the parameters of today’s American K-12 education, only technology has the power to turn things around.  Many more teachers must be technology literate, meaning that they can accurately evaluate the value of a given technology in their classrooms.

Unlike most organizations, schools cannot force technology on their employees. If they buy it and provide to the teachers, the teachers can just decide to ignore it without any consequences. It makes no difference whether the technology under consideration is the worst or the best, whether it’s useless or is the holy grail of education. This fact alone points to the dysfunction of our educational institutions. We must require technological literacy of all teachers and administrators before we can truly move into the new era of education.

Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Smart Science education?

Harry: I began to take a serious interest in science in my fifth grade summer school class where I created and presented a science demonstration with several experiments.  When in high school, I was an avid reader of Scientific American and have continued to read it for the rest of my life.

I had the distinct privilege to be one of 180 freshman at the California Institute of Technology. Nothing in high school can prepare you for immersion in this intense learning atmosphere.  Whether it was the freshman physics or chemistry, you were presented with a continual challenge of the highest order. I did undergraduate research both at the school and in a nearby company. Graduating in the top portion of my class, I was able to gain acceptance to the top chemistry graduate schools in the nation and chose to go to Columbia University in New York City.

I quickly discovered that my challenging undergraduate education had prepared me well for graduate school at even the best universities and was able to obtain my PhD in just over four years.

Many years later, my children were taking science courses. As I helped them with homework, I felt that they were not receiving the quality of education they deserved even though they were attending one of the nation’s best high schools. I volunteered as the science club adviser at that high school and met some of the most brilliant high school students you can imagine. As their adviser and coach for various competitions, I heard from them that their science education was considerably less than they could handle.  That was the time that I first began to think about how to improve science education.

My software expertise was self-taught. Computer science classes did not exist at the time I began to experiment with computers and software. At around the same time that I was becoming concerned with science education, I was doing some work for Sun Microsystems and was able to obtain internal information on Java, a new language designed for the Internet.  It seemed like serendipity to me.

It turned out to be a huge task, but we worked long hours and were able to make our prototype. Since then, many thousands of hours have been poured into making Smart Science education what it is today.

Victor: What is education?

Harry: Everyone talks about education, but I think that each person has a different definition of education based on experience and biases as to desired outcome.  The differences may be minor or substantial. I’d like to put in my own ideas so that readers know what I mean when I use the word.

I’ll start with:  “Education is the soul of a society.”

The ideas we pass on to our children from generation to generation define what our society looks like. It’s inescapable. Education is much more than sitting in classrooms. For millenia, rows of desks in classrooms just didn’t exist. Most people learned by example and by punishment. Those seeking a craft learned by apprenticeship.  All had to learn the mores of their society to function in it. Education is the process by which children learn to become  productive members of society.

We now stand at a moment in our history that will redefine education. The advent of the Internet changed the world, and it continues to change at an ever-accelerating pace.  Adapting to this increasing pace of change implies very strongly one very important idea: students must learn how to learn.

The overarching goal of all educational experience must now, more than ever before, to have our children develop the ability to learn on their own. That goal does not simply mean becoming facile at Twitter or Facebook or texting or even mathematics.  It means being able to make decisions about acquiring knowledge. It means being able to reject propaganda and recognize information. These skills are important because a well educated citizenry is essential for a vibrant democracy.

No longer can education merely be a means for entry into the wider society of “adults.”  No longer can we be satisfied with filling students’ head with a wide array of information.  No longer can a simple repeating of that information satisfy our testing of our children.

With the newest technology becoming obsolete in around five years, a technology “generation,” today’s college graduates will experience nearly ten technology generations before reaching typical retirement age. And these generations show every likelihood of becoming shorter.

Victor: What is science?

Harry: Our low science “literacy” rate is based on content knowledge and not on actual understanding of science. A true science literacy test would probably show even worse results.  But what does science really mean?

The word science comes from the Latin meaning “to know.” Science works with ideas.  Scientists explore the world of ideas about the universe. They are explorers sailing the sea of knowledge. Like early explorers, the stuff that scientists bring back from their virtual voyages, such as E=mc2 or F=ma, is not science any more than than the explorers’ exotic cargoes were exploration.

Science is a process that relies on an open yet skeptical mind. It requires close attention to details and a soaring imagination. It demands that hypotheses be disprovable and that data be reproducible. Importantly, science is not intuitive; it must be taught.

The best, and perhaps only, way to learn science is to do it. You don’t have to make new discoveries for the world to learn science. The discoveries may be new just to the student.  I always enjoyed figuring out and finding out things for myself. I believe the feeling of accomplishment when discovering something new is universal.

A good science class will harness that feeling to generate excitement and engagement in its students. It will not destroy the opportunities for discovery by giving the answer before the investigation just because of a fear that students will fail otherwise. Mistakes are the real stuff of learning.

Victor: How does Smart Science education address some of your concerns about education?

Harry: We’re constantly enhancing our software and courseware. It does a great job today as evidenced in the NYC school results alluded to previously. Still, our ability to take full advantage of the technology we invented has been limited by our resources.

Consider some of the possibilities of a system that centers on student interactions with videos from the real world. I’m sure that educators can find plenty of uses for this technology outside of science, but I’m focused on science.

When I took history in high school, it was all dates, events, and names. Lost were the personalities and the cultural environment in which the history took place. To pass, even to get 100 on your tests, all you required was a good memory and a few hours of memorization.

Much of science education today is just like my history classes. You’re told a bunch of words with definitions, a bunch of formulas with instructions how and when to use them, and a bunch of procedures.  You spend all of your time memorizing this and that.  The ennui may occasionally be relieved by a demonstration involving an explosion or a field trip.

However, as Carl Sagan so nicely put it, “there was no soaring sense of wonder, no hint of an evolutionary perspective, and nothing about mistaken ideas that everybody had once believed.” There also is none of the stuff that powers the human intellect: discovery and creation. These are the two non-animal forces of the human mind. These allow for mankind to revel in self-actualization and to have joy in the work of the mind. Artists have it. Explorers have been driven by it. Scientists are explorers of ideas about how the universe works. They sail a different sea than did those explorers of old but, like them, must work within rules. Explorers had the rules relating to sailing ships, weather, and such. Scientists have rules about how to explore, too.

If you understand the rules of science, which means the nature of science, then a new world opens up for you. If you master scientific thinking, then you no longer are prey to the masters of deceit that lurk on television channels, on billboards, and within magazines.

Again, it was Carl Sagan who codified this aspect of the scientist by commenting that scientists have a built-in “baloney detection kit.” He meant that scientists have to learn to think scientifically to survive in the world of peer review and reproducible results.  By applying this thinking to their everyday lives, they can avoid buying snake oil.

The press presents science as cut-and-dried. No sense of the difficulties in interpreting results, in performing empirical work, appears in most of the articles.  People can learn to appreciate this aspect of science with appropriate activities in science courses.

With Smart Science technology, we address all of these issues.  America’s Lab Report says that experimental data must come from the “material world.”  We fulfill that requirement.  By withholding the results of the experiments, we allow for guided exploration and discovery.  Requiring students to make predictions before doing experiments engages their minds in the process.

By recording a large enough range of experiments, we can provide students with a form of experimental design.  We can record several samples of experiments with the same experimental parameters so that when students select those, they get a random video and so capture the variability of actual experiments.

Some experiments can have flaws just they might if run live in a physical lab because they are run in a physical lab.  All experiments have some amount of random and systematic error and expose students to the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.

Smart Science technology allows students to have the same authentic experience they might have in a classroom lab and much more of it than possible in any traditional school.  Freed from the tedium of lab preparation, detailed procedural work, and clean up, students can concentrate on the science rather than the lab technician aspects of their explorations.

Especially for students not planning to major in science, these labs may provide the only real exposure to doing science that they’ll ever have.  It’s essential that they have as full and deep a science experience as we can provide to them.

While hands-on experiments and field trips still should form a portion of their experience, these online science labs add immeasurably to the science experience and bring science understanding that might otherwise escape them.  They truly can “learn to think like a scientist.”

Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?

Harry: The future of education is tremendously exciting.  Soon, new technologies will bring entirely new ways of learning to bear on the issues we face.

Already, we see teachers using various social networks to link students across national boundaries.  New electronic tablets have the promise of delivering educational materials to students at very low cost in the near future.

Most importantly, a new generation of students will expect the tools of education to behave as their games and social networks do.  When they poke their electronic devices, these devices respond.  That experience is unlike books, videos, many teachers, and most of the software that is being presented to schools today.

Adaptive software will individualize the learning experience to each student.  Students will move at their own pace.  Eventually, students will break free of the chains of “seat time” that have constrained education since the industrial revolution began.

One constant will remain.  Good teachers will be necessary for good learning, except that their role will change dramatically.  They will become coaches and mentors who help students with the unprogrammed aspects of educational technology and provide a human contact to counterbalance the impersonal technology that will be delivering much of educational material in the future.

No one can predict with certainty what the schools of the future will look like.  It is certain that they will no longer look like those we see today.  I like the library model of schools where information assistants, i.e. librarians of the future,  help students to find their way to learning.  For the younger students, a physical school may remain important.  The form of future colleges and universities is unclear to me at this time.

I sincerely hope that the future of education will represent what learning should be:  learning to learn.

Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Smart Science education? What makes you say that?

Harry: Using Smart Science education in your school, whether traditional K-12, online, or post-secondary, will benefit your students, your instructors, and your institution.  Your subscriptions will also support our efforts to build the best possible science education tools based on a century of research into how to teach science.

The Smart Science technology and system have been created by scientists who have studied science education for a very long time and collected best practices into a concrete system of software and courseware.  We have forgone the easy road of just building simulations that focus on procedures and predetermined manipulation of formulas.  Rather, we took the much more difficult road, both in terms of software development and lab creation, of using real experiments as the basis for learning.

Our concept required that we force students to think instead of just parroting back data put into their heads.  At first, this process may seem difficult to some teachers and students.  However, once you get past the initial shock of thinking, it becomes exciting and engaging.  What will you discover next?  Our testimonials speak volumes regarding the correctness of our approach.

Join us in building our family of Smart Science instructors and learners. It’s the future of science education.

——-

Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com

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