Education, Homeschool, Science/Math

Exploring e-Learning Options

I’m always interested in exploring technology and how it can be used at home and in the classroom as a learning tool. As I’ve written in the past, I’m a big fan of the online Starfall games for helping preschoolers learn phonics and basic math skills. We’ve also had great success with free PBS Kids Lab games, which focus on math, reading and science featuring some of my children’s favorite characters like Sid the Science Kid and Curious George. As an instructor for the University of Phoenix, I’ve used computer-based marketing simulations with my students to help them visualize how marketing changes they initiate affect how customers perceive the product. Recently, my high-school friend Abby introduced me to two, more-focused e-Learning tools: ExploreLearning’s Gizmos and Reflex Math, and I’ve been playing with both through the company’s free trial.

Reflex Math has one specific purpose: to improve math fluency, in other words how quickly children can answer basic math facts. Before computers we did this with flash cards, timed worksheets or, one of my major memories, reciting times tables everywhere I went. Reflex Math has turned this practice into a series of games that hold children’s attention and motivate them. Students first create their own avatar and journey to an island to explore several math games. As they solve facts and earn coins, they can buy things for their avatar at the store.

I tested out an Egyptian-themed facts game where I “shot” serpents each time I answered a problem. I also solved a picture puzzle, earning pieces for each problem I mastered. I later chose the ninja game and climbed higher and higher each time I typed in a correct fact. For early elementary students, this game-based method of practice is far superior to flash cards, etc. I’d rather shoot a serpent or be a ninja any day. And for $35 for student for home users, the price is right.

The company’s other product, Gizmos, is a series of science and math simulations geared for grades 3 and up. I focused my attention on the science Gizmos, which allow you to conduct “hands-on” investigations in a classroom or home environment where you may not have expensive lab equipment. Gizmos also has a time advantage. Many of the experiments I preformed would have taken days or weeks in a traditional lab, whereas I was able to conduct them in just a few minutes on the computer.

Gizmos simulations run the gamut, from biology to astronomy and physics. I studied genetics by breeding mice, for example (a high-school simulation). I experimented with the effects of sun, food and water on the growth of different plants, carefully controlling for each variable. And, I learned about the phases of the moon by viewing a simulation that showed the Earth’s rotation and the Moon’s orbit around the Earth. For each Gizmo, ExploreLearning provides a student exploration sheet, which walks the student through the simulation, helping her to explore all its aspects. They also include a teacher guide, vocabulary sheet and an assessment.

Should Gizmos replace the science lab? I hope not. Getting your hands dirty, being forced to slow down, think and observe are all irreplaceable benefits of actually doing science. These are the moments I remember from middle and high-school science. With that said, schools and home school environments often don’t have the resources, time or ability to breed mice or equip boats with sonar to explore the oceans. In these instances, the Gizmos simulations stimulate inquiry and help learning come alive. For the homeschool market, Gizmos is $59 for first time buyers then $99 upon renewal if purchased through the Homeschool Buyers Co-op.