In 1982 I was working at TERC for Bob Tinker. TERC is a 501-C3 educational non-profit focused on math and science education and research and Ronald Reagan drastically cut back the Department of Education. For an organization that relied on soft money this was a big problem. Our grant funding was drying up.
There were about 15 of us who worked at TERC and to keep the organization afloat we decided to travel around the country with lots of Apple II computers and put on teacher workshops about using innovative curriculum and technology for science and math education. We used a bunch of the software and curriculum we had been developing in our grants. It was a great deal of work and we just barely broke even – but it did help keep us afloat until more grants came in.
One of the new technologies Bob Tinker and I had created together was the whole idea of probeware – connecting sensors that measure environmental properties like light and temperature to a microcomputer and displaying the changes in real-time graphs on the computer. At the time we called the concept Microcomputer Based Laboratories.
The first and simplest of these programs was the Apple II Temperature Grapher we created in 1980 for HRM Media which used a thermistor connected to the built-in gameport.
At our workshops I ran a session for teachers where I gave each of them a thermistor, some wire, a 16-pin DIP header and some solder and a soldering iron. Almost none of them had ever soldered before and most of them had never opened the computer case either.
Well I helped them learn to solder. We had lots of extra parts if they broke something. When they connected their new temperature probe to the computer I helped them write a 10 line BASIC program that read data from the gameport, converted it to temperature and drew a realtime graph on the screen.
I want to be very clear. The purpose of the workshop wasn’t to enable teachers to make probes for their classroom. The probes they made were quite delicate and would break with robust handling. I also wasn’t teaching them to be programmers. There are loads more features needed to make a program like this work well in a classroom.
The purpose was for them to have fun and get interested in Probeware in their classrooms. In that respect the session was a complete success.
But something much deeper was also happening that I didn’t realize the importance of until later. I noticed during the session that the teachers were having a great deal of fun and were quite energized. That didn’t surprise me because I liked electronics and programming and building things and measuring stuff in the world too.
Many years later at NSTA conferences I can remember many of these same teachers, who were now educational leaders in their districts, would come up to me and mention that the workshops we ran were very important to them and they all remembered the probeware workshop.
I realized that something very special happens when people are in a new situation where they have agency over domains that they never expected to have any mastery over.
The emotional energy released/generated in the probeware workshop when the teachers soldered bits together and wrote a simple program to graph temperature changed their view of what was possible for them and the people around them.
To this day the full-body smile someone gets when they understand how something works in a way that helps them accomplish something they care about is something I greatly enjoy.
An interesting postscript: At both TERC and later at Concord Consortium we ran many very interesting research and curriculum development projects funded by grants. Some of these have had large impacts. I still think the workshop series over 30 years ago when our grant funding was drying up had some of the most significant impacts of all of our projects.