Boston Globe
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Springfield Republican
NYU Physician Magazine
UMass Amherst Magazine
Mount Holyoke College
OnWisconsin (UW Alumni Magazine)
Amherst College
Smith College
Tufts University
Tulane University
Wesleyan University
University of Texas
Other Publications
Magazine Articles
At Home Features
Opinion / Analysis / Essays

November 12, 2000, Sunday

Education Life Supplement
In Class, Gadgets for Interacting, and No One Need Nod Off
By Eric Goldscheider

Teachers since Soc-rates have known that students learn best when they are engaged. But most undergraduates endure more than one course in which a professor holds forth for 80 minutes at a stretch. Some students just cannot help nodding off.

Now, thanks to Louis Abrahamson, a South African-born scientist, more are able to stay awake. Dr. Abrahamson, who had run a company that preformed research for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, said he decided 13 years ago that it was time to pursue his dream of using science to benefit mankind more directly, so he set out to use microchips to liven up lectures. A growing number of so-called classroom communications systems has resulted.

The systems come in two varieties: hard-wired and wireless. Personal keypads allow students to answer questions posed during class.

Eric Mazur, a Harvard physicist who has used these systems for 10 years, might ask the 250 students in his introductory lecture whether the level of a glass of ice water rises, falls or stays the same as the cubes melt. He posts possible answers on an overhead projector and tells the students to vote. Individual responses are recorded on a hard drive, and the aggregate is projected onto a screen as a bar graph.

The really interactive part begins when Professor Mazur tells his students to convince their neighbors that their answers are correct before voting again.

"The class just erupts into total chaos," he said. "Nobody eats a sandwich or sleeps or even daydreams." Something happens pedagogically when a person takes a position, commits to it, and is forced to defend or re-evaluate it that just does not happen during an ordinary lecture, Professor Mazur says.

Classtalk, the original hard-wired system, is sold by Better Education Inc., of Yorktown, Va., which Dr. Abrahamson heads. It costs about $22,850 to install in a 300-seat lecture hall. Students plug a graphing calculator (about $85), standard equipment for science majors, into permanent jacks.

With a wireless innovation named the PRS for personal response system, each student has a transmitter that resembles a hand-held calculator. Clicking the transmitter sends infrared signals to a receiver at the front of the room. It does not collect as much information as the hard-wired system does, but the PRS system is portable and much cheaper. Installing the system in a 300-seat auditorium costs about $800. Typically, students buy the transmitters at the bookstore for $50 apiece and can take them from class to class.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology recently became the first school to install classroom communications systems campus-wide.

Dr. Abrahamson said the systems had also been used with great success in classes for much younger students.

By the way, the Archimedes principle says that the water level in a glass remains unchanged when ice cubes submerged in it melt. Try explaining why, and you will understand why Professor Mazur's class erupts into chaos from time to time.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 -