Mac Lab Report

Apples in Science Class

Have We Made Any Progress Leaving the Apple IIs Behind?

- 2002.04.01

I started teaching in 1985. My school, which was well-equipped in physics hardware, also had a collection of Apple II machines. Before I left that school (Henry Clay High School, Lexington, Kentucky), I managed to assemble a "ragtag fugitive fleet" of Apple II machines - everything from the Apple II+ to several Apple IIes and even a IIgs. (I must confess that by 1990 I kept an Atari 1040ST on my own desk, because I liked the GUI much better than the command line interface on the Apple IIs).

Let's consider what I could do then vs. what I do now.

Computer based data collection: Vernier software made a game port interface that allowed us to connect various sensors and probes to the Apple II. We used motion detectors and photogates to good effect and got data just as usable and functionally identical to the data I get today with my "fancy" USB interface connected to an iMac. I also recall using temperature probes and light sensors. We had digital oscilloscopes for showing the digital version of analog sound input. Today I have more probes, such as radiation counters, pressure sensors, and Hall effect magnetic field probes. The core of my physics program could still be run off Apple IIs, though.

Lab reports: In both cases we used AppleWorks. However, the AppleWorks on the Apple II wasn't quite as integrated. It still had word processing and spreadsheet functions, but you couldn't embed one in the other. On the other hand, I still get students who won't copy a data table and/or graph from a data collection program and paste it in a word processor. They are so bad about begging for scissors and glue (this is high school, mind you) that I've taken to hiding the scissors on lab day. There's not much lost there.

Presentations: We didn't do presentations with PowerPoint or its equivalent; I didn't learn about that kind of software until I took an extended break from teaching and worked in an office for a few years. When students needed to see my screen, I just turned the monitor around, although I did have an overhead transparency screen that connected to my Apple II. Now I have a huge projector gizmo thing with a bulb that's about to die. It looks better - when it has a bulb.

Databases: Didn't do much with them then; still don't. I understand databases thoroughly and use them myself, but everything I do with students seems so contrived that it just doesn't seem like it's worth the effort. I don't believe in making up projects as an excuse for using the computer.

Programming: I used to write elaborate programs in BASIC on my Apple II and especially on my Atari; I even sold one to a magazine and had a summer job programming an Atari 800. On my Mac, the closest thing to programming I've done is building a fairly complex database with FileMaker. I suppose I'm going to have to break down and learn REALbasic one of these days. ::He sighs:: I sure miss HyperCard. It was great for a little quick demo or simulation. Did you know there was HyperCard for the IIgs - and that the IIgs used ADB peripherals?

Simulations: I wrote my own simulations in BASIC. Today, there are lots of Java applets all over the place - just do a search. Or buy a copy of Interactive Physics. Learning Java or REALbasic just doesn't seem like its worth the effort for the little dink-oid programs I want to write. I can't remember my new zip code, let alone all those stupid keywords and grammar rules. Every time I download the free REALbasic interpreter and try to slog through the tutorial, something distracts me (like an accreditation review), and I can't make any progress before my time limit expires. Don't forget: I'm a teacher first, a hobbyist second. Sometimes, efficiency wins. Sometimes I use Chipmunk Basic when I'm desperate and can't think of how to make FileMaker or Excel generate the families of curves I want.

Attendance and Gradebooks: I've used electronic gradebooks since 1986 and still do. Today, however, we can log attendance on our school SASI server - and wait for the data to transmit at something pretty close to 300 baud. I can almost type the data in faster than SASI runs. The stupid thing is, we have to keep a paper gradebook anyway. So instead of making life easier, now we have double work. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

Internet: Everyone says they want to use the Internet for research; what they really want is to use the Internet for plagiarism. Okay, back then there was no Internet; I did connect to many BBSes through a modem ("What's a BBS, Mr. Adkins?") including NASA SpaceLink. We did stuff like tracking satellites with figures we got from NASA. That was fun. Today we have a wealth of resources to which I occasionally refer when teaching, and I do like posting my class information online. But it's also true that 99% of the problems I have with my computers derives directly from the networking issues I face in trying to overcome Winertia. I've said more than once that if the networking issues become any more acute, I'm going to go find my router and disconnect it from the network so I can have AppleTalk back and get some work done. While I'm ranting, consider this: When your students are researching. they aren't creating. The research only backs up the creation of a new idea; most students and a lot of teachers think that the research is an end unto itself.

Movies: VHS vs. Digital. Well, digital looks nicer. But the movies I got in the 80s had more content. They had to be thought out better, I guess, because editing was so much a pain in the neck. All in all, there's no contest; iMovie just rocks. It does. It's worth having a Mac just to get iMovie. The potential is greater, I just need to work harder to get students to express it.

So where does that leave us as Low End Mac users? We pay a heavy price for the GUI we love. Macs are certainly less stable than Apple IIs; on the other hand, floppies are notoriously unreliable, and most of my carefully hoarded Apple II stash has decayed beyond usefulness now.

If you were starting from scratch, you could go very low-end Mac (I'm talking Mac SE here) quite successfully, and you could use Apple IIs quite successfully as far as the educational objectives go. You might be a bit cheaper with the Apple IIs, but not by much. And think of the fact that with Apple IIs you would never need to worry about proxy servers, changing DNS addresses every third week, filtering content, or getting someone to assign you IP addresses. The things are built like tanks; they run forever - except for those gummed up floppy drives.

If I'm not careful I'll wind up talking myself into handing off my lab to another teacher here at my school and dragging out the Apple IIs.

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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