How One Science Teacher Integrates Laptops into Lessons

Carol Donnelly (pseudonym) has taught 13 years, the last six at Las Montanas. She has been using laptops since 2002 when they were introduced at the school. In 2009, when I interviewed her and observed her classes, she was teaching biology to honors students (one class), regular students (one class), and English Language Learners (ELL) in three classes. She used the same basic lesson for all of her biology classes, stretching out the content for ELL classes while going in more depth in the regular and honors classes (e.g., research papers, PowerPoint presentations, Science Fair projects). She integrated laptops into her lessons once a week.

Every Wednesday, she told me, is laptop day. She brings a mobile cart from the Media Center  to her classroom. In one lesson I observed, Donnelly began class with a review of yesterday’s material on photosynthesis. Afterwards she had students open their laptops to watch animations of photosynthesis that she had loaded on their machines earlier. A pop-up quiz appeared after the animations. Donnelly walked around and checked student scores on the quiz. She then summarized the concept of photosynthesis by questioning students. Finally, she collected homework assigned the previous day.

At the beginning of her senior honors class, students usually work on laptops for their Science Fair project. Today, Donnelly lectured on the Calvin cycle of photosynthesis. Students took notes and then viewed the animations and took the quiz as the other class had. Closing activities were similar to the previous class.

Sometimes, she told me, a laptop lesson on Wednesday spills over subsequent days. She recalled a lesson on the plasma (or cell) membrane that took three days. She included exercises that came from Kerpoof multimedia software that had students draw and label parts of the plasma membrane. She showed me a worksheet that she had created to accompany the lesson. She spends a lot of time finding websites, videos, and applications to use with her classes.

Donnelly  also has her students blogging. With a laptop camera, students liven up their blog page with photos they take of themselves and others. She reads the blogs and comments but gives no grades on entries. She told me about a prompt concerning Thanksgiving and turkey that mentioned tryptophan with URLs to the chemical and what it does in the human body. Some students, she said, blogged on the chemical after reading the links she had provided.

When asked about benefits of laptops for her and students, she said: “When kids do not understand my directions they will ask me what I meant, raise their hands and question me. In regular, non-laptop classes, kids will just less it pass.”  She added: “I have definitely changed my teaching. I do far more preparation now and give kids access to ideas and information they would not ordinarily find.”

She gave an example.  “When I asked students to compare the features of a cell to anything they wanted—the high school, family, friends, sports team, etc.—they created stories, took photos off the web, did an Imovie and a Keynote presentation. I was surprised and pleased. I had not expected all of that to be done in one class period.”

For non-laptop days, I observed Donnelly following traditional science lessons that included a wet lab “experiment” with pairs of students working together, her lecturing, students taking notes, short video clips, and students completing worksheets drawn from chapters in the textbook.

Veteran Carol Donnelly works hard in her five daily classes but knows how to pace herself. By her admission and my observations, I see that laptops have energized her. She sees the benefits from using the web to enrich her teaching through other teachers’ lessons, videos, and websites that permit students to dig deeper into content than their text. She sees that students become engaged with the animation, lectures, videos as she skillfully integrates content from the text, websites, and new software activities. Yet her teaching, while remaining within the tradition of teacher-centered instruction has incorporated elements of student-centered instruction–she is creating a mix of instructional approaches.

Nothing new here, of course. Most subject matter teachers in secondary schools, whether affluent districts or ones with largely low-income students, teach within that tradition, one with variations to be sure–what I call “hybrids.”

But for “pedagogical dogmatists“–think of those at Edutopia— there is only one way to integrate technology into lessons:  “Learning through projects while equipped with technology tools allows students to be intellectually challenged while providing them with a realistic snapshot of what the modern office looks like. Through projects, students acquire and refine their analysis and problem-solving skills as they work individually and in teams to find, process, and synthesize information they’ve found online.”

Donnelly’s classes remind me that thoughtful teaching and smooth weekly integration of laptops into biology lessons –within a five period workload and three preparations across different levels of students–can be done with finesse, humor, excitement, and-yes- within a blend of teacher- and student-centered pedagogy. Like many teachers, she hugs the middle of the spectrum.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

9 responses to “How One Science Teacher Integrates Laptops into Lessons

  1. The culture at Edutopia, at the National Academies Foundation (NAF), or indeed any outside-the-institution organization ( ) that wants to help improve education sounds rigid because it is demanded to prove authenticity. Calls for rigor and data affect these people as much as they affect the rest of the enterprise. To some extent outside entities serve other masters who demand homage as well, but this doesn’t have to impact learning negatively any more that superficial questioning of facts hurts history.

    Is dogmatic behaviour good? Certainly not in the “leadership” sense because it’s not a cooperative attitude. On the other hand, the culture of testing that exists in the rest of classroom education is far more rigid and unyielding. At Edutopia, teachers like your pseudonymous Donnelly are integrating behaviours into their lessons that are facilitated by technology. It’s probable that science teachers find it easier because the fields are closely entwined. This is not true of language and social studies.

    But at the classroom level, as you describe the biology class, teachers are learning to incorporate data, interaction, visualization, and multimedia communication into their courses. Note I didn’t say “technology”.

    After attending the NAF meeting in Philadelphia this summer and listening to J.D. Hoye and the ConnectEd staff, I came to a realization. Institutional management (leadership) treats all sorts of teaching/learning opportunities as “projects” and in general lacks institutional memory for the successes and failures. There is a desperate need to move these “projects” into “practice”; into routine as science has done. (J.D. Hoye told me I understood what she was getting at.)

    Perhaps your last paragraph is where we agree strongly and haven’t articulated it. There is a verbal fog around the word “technology” when it is used to describe teaching. Technology is my field as biology or mathematics is for another teacher. Technology has a rich history and philosophy alongside science, supporting practice. I would therefore urge that thought be given to the nature of technology-as-handmaiden to science when thinking about teacher-centered versus learner-centered model building.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Bob. Your message has been consistent (smartly critical and mindful, in my opinion) when I have discussed technology in relation to teaching. Part of my habit of treating technology as an add-on to the hard work of teaching is that policymakers and administrators often have made decisions about purchasing and deploying new technologies with teachers being bystanders and then expected to implement the deployed technologies into their lessons. Your suggestion in the final paragraph of your comment is one that I will have to think about further.

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  3. From your posting, I read that students are using laptops for their science fair projects. Isn’t that technology use on behalf of project-based learning? I also read that students are using laptops for blogging. Is that traditional instruction?

    I think the point I’m making is that in most classrooms using technology there is a combination of untraditional activity (projects, social media, etc.) and traditional activity. For that reason, I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to view this as being an either/or. Most classes fall somewhere along the spectrum, and appropriately so.

    I also believe that it is harder to organize non-traditional instruction in high schools than in elementary or middle schools, where the flexibility of the scheduling and curriculum make that more possible. That was one of the flaws, in my opinion, about Oversold and Underused–you excluded the grades (upper elementary and middle) where creative use of technology is most frequently found. I understand you had your rationale for doing so, which you articulated, but I didn’t find that persuasive.

    All that being said, you seem to be softening your position on technology a bit. My impression from your earlier writing was that you expected Internet-connected computers to end up with radio, film, and television on the sidelines of education, rarely used and marginal. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ms. Donnelly’s class, and I don’t find her class atypical. The national ratio of students to computers in US schools is now about 3 to 1 (updated from the 4 to 1 a few years ago that you mentioned in a recent posting). As this ratio steadily decreases, as seems inevitable, toward 2 to 1 and eventually 1 to 1, I expect a continued increase in use of digital media in teaching and learning, thus ending with a very different outcome than radio, film and television. I’m interested in hearing your thoughts.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Mark,
      Thanks for your careful reading of this post. I want to respond to two points you raised, fair ones to be sure.
      1. Carol Donnelly’s class is, indeed, a mix of both teacher- and student-centered approaches. I should have pointed out that Donnelly has created a hybrid approach to teaching biology at Las Montanas. She hugs the middle of the teaching spectrum, a point that is central in my 2009 study of teachers in four urban districts, “Hugging the Middle:How Teachers Teach in an Era of Testing and Accountability.” So you are correct. Thanks for pointing this out. One virtue of blogging is that you can go back to a post and update it. I have done that.
      2. As for “softening” my position on teacher use of technology since writing “Teachers and Machines” in 1985, you are correct again insofar as the predictions I made nearly 30 years ago. In two previous posts, I admitted that my research in the late 1990s that was published in “Oversold and Underused” and my current research at Las Montanas (a 1:1 laptop high school with two departments having interactive whiteboards) shows higher percentages of teachers as regular users (once or more a week) and occasional users (at least once monthly). See January 31, 2010 post “Confessions from a Skeptic on Computers in Schools” and August 7, 2010, “The Challenge of Writing about Change and Stability.”

      The latter posting is one that echoes the larger point I made in “Teachers and Machines” decades ago. Both change and constancy in teaching occur at any one point in time within tax-supported public schools. They are entangled with one another. Capturing the dynamic quality of that process of change while acknowledging the organizational and external contexts that unrelentingly keep teaching stable is a hard but necessary task for researchers. Again, thanks, Mark, for your comments.

  4. Cal

    I was at a mandatory PI “education” session last month, and was listening to a colleague talk with a teacher from another school in the district.

    “So are you still doing your laptop thing?”
    “Well, we give seniors (and maybe juniors, can’t remember) laptops, and then media carts for the rest.” She grimaces humorously, not sounding too thrilled by the whole project.

    On impulse I asked if she had ever heard of Larry Cuban and, as I’m sure you guessed, she said “Yes, he was here doing research. He just returned for followup research last year.”

    When you say “hugging the middle”, you mean the middle of the spectrum between no tech and all tech, right? Because I would describe her use of tech as way more than the average teacher, if she really does use it every week.

    Anyone who argues in favor of “learning through projects”, by the way, is either ignorant of math instruction or unusually determined to ignore reality.

    • larrycuban

      Middle of spectrum refers to a teacher-centered to student-centered continuum (see “Hugging the Middle” article cited in post on science teacher). Most teachers, including math folks, tilt toward the teacher-centered side of continuum but there are many who have blended both approaches to teaching. Only a few math teachers, as you point out, pursue project-based teaching.

  5. You covered so many topics in your brief essay making a coherent response difficult. What would a five-day laptop integration look like? I can hardly extrapolate from the one-day integration you describe — not your fault obviously.

    From what you wrote, I’d say that Ms. Donnelly is more student-aware than many science teachers and has made a strenuous effort to improve her class in whatever way possible. Do the laptops make a substantive difference in learning? Again, I cannot tell.

    What I’d like to have read, I did not. I’d like to see that Ms. Donnelly’s classes provided a sense of the nature of science and helped students develop scientific thinking skills. I’d like to have seen them work with complex and ambiguous data to discern their meaning. Yet, what I read had only to do with pedagogy and with learning content.

    My perspective as a scientist does bend my view somewhat. We, as a nation, are struggling with how to make science more appealing so that we can achieve more science graduates. Science will be more appealing only if students get the real science and not some watered-down, half-baked version. Learning how photosynthesis works by watching animations or reading textbooks or listening to lectures does not advance the cause of learning real science. It’s just another way to memorize a seemingly endless array of words, formulas, procedures, and other “facts.”

    Until students have the soaring sense of wonder and understand all of the brilliant people who got it wrong in the past, they won’t begin to learn science. They’re just learning a bunch of “facts.” How can students really learn science? It’s not a new question. It’s been around since the mid-nineteenth century when science began to be taught to younger students.

    The answer came rather quickly, before the end of that century. A number of science educators came to the same conclusion, which some termed “heuristic teaching.” They decided that students had to find out for themselves at least a few of the things they were to learn. Let them explore, collect data, present and analyze it, and write about their conclusions. Later, this approach was to be termed “guided inquiry.”

    Guided inquiry had problems, but not truly pedagogical ones. The guides (instructors) had to work with small groups. One innovator, Prof. E. H. Hall of Harvard University, stressed that groups must be no larger than twelve students. Another, F. W. Westaway, pointed out that instructors have have extensive knowledge of all sciences and of science history and philosophy in order to handle the questions that naturally arise in guided inquiry. The facts are that these qualifications (small class size and extensive training) are just too expensive for today’s schools.

    Furthermore, hands-on labs and projects, while useful in learning, are inefficient. They take lots of time. That fact limits the number of such activities you can insert into a course. In addition, they tend to be relatively expensive, a problem in today’s budgetary atmosphere.

    All of the above issues can be resolved by appropriate use of Internet technology (not just any old technology). At the same time, you can have a plethora of additional benefits.

    A class of 30+ students doing a “wet” lab is difficult to supervise. Such labs often have little value because, for example, the answers are known before the students begin the lab or because the lab experience emphasizes technique rather than science. A class of 30+ students with 1-1 computers (or even 2-1) is much easier to supervise. Online labs can be inexpensive, efficient, and safe. Unfortunately, online labs have a bad connotation. They are associated with the “cartoon” simulation labs of the last century. Even if you upgrade the graphics, they’re still not real labs because they don’t involve taking data from the real world.

    Fortunately, there are alternatives. With technology it becomes possible to eat your cake and have it too. You can have improved learning of the nature of science and better scientific thinking. You can have safe, low-cost, efficient science inquiry, exploration, and discovery. You don’t have to have such extensive training of instructors. You can have differentiated learning and learning to mastery. You can have social learning. Plus, you can integrate useful hands-on activities right into the online ones.

    Suddenly, five-day laptop integration looks reasonable.

    • larrycuban

      Dear Dr. Keller,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Obviously, I did not write an ethnography of Carol Donnelly’s biology class in 800 words (the limit I impose upon myself for postings). Your deep concern for how science is taught, particularly through heuristics and inquiry call for a very different pedagogy, as you well know. The struggle over how to teach science is well over a century and a half old. Progressives and traditionalists fought in the 1930s over the proper way to teach science as occurred also in the 1950s and 1960s when Jerome Weisner and many others sought major shifts in both curriculum (with new texts) and instruction (NSF fellowships for science teachers). The struggle continues. I see the larger contexts of the age-graded school, state and federal rules for accountability and testing that emerged in the 1990s and since, and habits of mind that press for the kinds of teaching you rail against. I do thank you for pointing out the long-term tensions that have existed around science teaching. Clearly, what you recommend does occur in isolated instances but is far, very far from the norm. The Carol Donnellys are doing more than many other teachers insofar as technology is concerned but the benchmark tests in biology that the district mandates, the state tests given annually, and the consequences of low scores do matter a great deal in shaping the pedagogy.

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