Excel-lence In Science Education

Looking for a new way to help your students achieve EXCELlence in Science? Look no further than Excel as a great way to help students understand trends, graphs and mathematical relationships.

I know we want stduents to learn how to draw graphs, understand x and y axes, explain lines of best fit and so on, but seriously.

Surely one of the most important things we can teach our students is to use the most appropriate tools and encourage them to spend their time analysing their results. We want them to discuss what the result mean for them and how they may or may not support their pre-conceptions or the current paradigm.

So instead of sweating the small stuff, ask your students to carry out an experiment. It may be as simple as boiling water. Get them to record their results in their practical books, because this is good scientific practice. Once they have a set of results, then we can start playing with Excel. In Excel your students can transcribe their values into two columns of data (eg time and temperature). If we select the data and then select the insert tab, there is a whole range of different types of graphical representations for the data.

This allows you to discuss the difference between continuous and discontinuous data (linear relationships, vs groups) and explain why we might use a line graph over a histogram for a particular problem.

The key message here is, don’t worry if the data or labels or anything else doesn’t come up the way you were expecting. Once you have your graph, clicking on it will bring up a new tab called Chart Tools. This allows your students to change the design, the layout and the format. I like to start with the design tab and select data. This enables me to add extra lines, change some values or name the different series. Use the layout tab to change the axes names and max values, chart title and even add a line of best fit from the trendlines group.

I find these spreadsheet tools an excellent support when teaching students about trends, eg when studying the periodic table. The key trends across a period and down a group are tedious and time-consuming to draw by hand (just ask some of my ex-students), but excel gives you the power to focus time on the meaning of the graphs and not solely on their construction. So we can talk about why atomic radius increases down a group, or why first ionisation energy increase across a period (generally).

To make the most of technology for science education , make sure your students see the power of applications. If they see the power of technology to simplify their work or make portions of it easier to complete, they may well feel more comfortable using technology for their learning. Of course, this applies equally to their teachers as well.