- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

Home-schooling parents sometimes struggle with being able to provide math or science support to their high school-level learners. Just the thought of a time and distance problem can make us quail a bit, and trying to work out the probabilities of those pesky dominant and recessive traits may trigger a quickened pulse and sweaty palms.

I have to credit my son with the discovery of a new online tool for math and science learning. ExploreLearning (www.explorelearning.com) is an instructional tool perfect for classroom teachers or home-schooling families.

The Web site, which is accessed through subscription, has developed animated illustrations and mini-movies explaining key science and math concepts, which the site calls “gizmos.” More than 400 gizmos are available on the site, with more being developed all the time, each indexed to high school curriculum goals, as well as specific textbook chapters.

Instead of trying to wrestle with one’s own dimly remembered knowledge of graphing trinomial equations, this site allows users to show the learner exactly how the equation works through images and animated sequences.

What’s unusual is the gizmos are interactive. The user can plug in the data he or she wants to use, and the simulation will “act out” the scenario using that data. In this way, the student sees the results of changing the origin, x or y intercept, axis of symmetry, or the values of the equation.

Say, for instance, you are studying photosynthesis. The gizmo allows you to “set” the amounts of carbon dioxide and sunlight that the plant is receiving, and then you can measure the amount of oxygen produced under those circumstances. By playing with the buttons, creating different mixes of light and air, the oxygen levels change. The results are revealed by clicking on a graphing tool, which creates the measurements of the settings and the respective oxygen output for each setting. Another tool will show the results in a bar graph form.

Clicking on the Exploration Guide gives a printable set of suggested activities and ways to use the gizmo to explore the specific phenomenon. These can be used as assignments, if needed. After working with the gizmo for some time, the student can test his or her knowledge using multiple-choice questions based on the content, and both the student and the instructor can get an immediate assessment of how well that portion of the lesson is understood.

Another helpful tool is the mini-lessons provided with animation, vocal explanations and a demonstration of the specific topic. These help students to see how they can use the specific gizmo, as well as explaining the math or science concept in clear, simple language. Watching a five-minute video lesson can help student and parent relax into the subject area, and “see” certain things that typically take much longer to explain in two-dimensional book pages or on blackboards.

One section on tides and the gravitational pull of the moon allows the user to “see” the rotation of the Earth, and the attendant rise and fall of sea levels at a certain spot over a course of days, weeks or months. The graph shows a pattern of the high and low levels during that time period, and the swings of the highest and lowest tides —the spring tides — also are illustrated. This really helped me to see this phenomenon in a new way, especially in the description of gravitational pull using rubber bands.

You can register for a 30-day free trial of the service as a home user, and “test drive” the service before plunking down any cash. A year subscription to the site is $149. Other services offered for subscribers are classroom instructional options, online classes, newsletters and testing. This site is a good accompaniment to a book-based curriculum, and it is pure gold for visual learners and those who learn best by manipulation and observation.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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