Probeware on a Budget - Sneaky Uses for Free Software and Cheap Tech Toys

I teach high school physics and I use a lot of expensive probeware to collect data. The only reason I can do this is my school has been collecting the probes over a number of years, building our collection slowly over time. For those who aren't science teachers, probeware refers to a collection of interfaces used to connect a variety of sensors to a computer or graphing calculator. These interfaces can allow for real time data collection and graphing or can serve as data-loggers collecting data over time.

The two largest vendors of educational probeware are Vernier and Pasco:
I have used Vernier sensors and interfaces and I can affirm that they are awesome. However, I understand that not every school has the ability/money to do probeware based labs. Below you will find instructions of how to create a variety of sensors for use with students that cost very little money (assuming you have access to computers).

Personally I still do some of the activities listed below even when I have access to more expensive sensors.

Computer Sound Card Based

If you have a computer you can take a variety of data using only the microphone port. If you're nervous about potentially burning out the sound card built into your computer you can get a USB Sound Card for under $10.


Arduino Based Probeware

This section will be growing. Arduino is a relatively cheap microcontroller platform. It has 6 analog inputs with a 10-bit resolution. So far I've only documented a proof of concept project. I've had students develop other senor based projects, but they are mostly still working on them. As they are completed and documented I will post them here. SparkFun now offers educators a 20% discount, so it's now even cheaper to do this.

Illustrated Guides

I used ComicLife to create illustrated guides intended to walk teachers through how to do the activities listed above as handouts for my presentation at the NECC in 2007. These are all in pdf form.
  • Build your own Probeware (pdf) - Learn how you can easily create a sensor capable of measuring fluctuations in light.
  • Photogate Experiments (pdf) - Use your homemade sensor to conduct motion experiments after you build a nearly free picket fence.
  • Sound Science (pdf) - By using the same software we used with our photogate we can do a large number of labs or demonstrations related to sound. All you need are some speakers and a cheap microphone.

Cheap Tech Toys as Sensors for Labs

  • Hot Wheels Radar Gun - Fun toy that actually works.
  • Non-Contact Thermometer - Watch for sales at Harbor Freight. Sometimes they get into the $10 range.
  • Ghostometer - See if your classroom is haunted... Or maybe just investigate EMF with your students. Both are good fun!
  • Wiimote - Use it as a wireless 3-axis accelerometer or set it up as a cheap alternative to an interactive whiteboard.

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