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Education Talks: Supporting science education with low-cost digital tools


Education Talks: Supporting science education with low-cost digital tools

In this interview, Julien Bobroff, physicist and professor at Paris-Saclay University, demonstrates how to use low-cost tools, such as smartphones, to teach science in more engaging ways.
Education Talk interview on low-cost digital tools with Julien Bobroff

My name is Julien Bobroff, I'm a French physicist, as you can guess from my accent, and I'm working nearby Paris, at the Paris-Saclay University and I'm a professor there.


Science teachers’ challenge: reconnecting science with real-world issues


I think we have a real issue in trying to reconnect science and the real world and especially in front of the environmental crisis. Nowadays, from my point of view at least, science labs are a little bit disconnected, detached from real life and especially from nature and our students, our children are increasingly looking for a meaning and a way to face the environmental crisis, so we have somehow to reconnect both and to show them that science can indeed be helpful to better understand the world and try to find new solutions.


The smart phone as a low-cost tool


When we say low-cost tools we really mean low-cost, so it would be, like a piece of wood like that or a piece of paper or a ruler, everything that you already have in your classroom basically. The only expensive tool we add in that story is the smartphone, because a smartphone is of course very expensive, but most teenagers have them already in their pocket, so we consider it as a "fake" low-cost tool. With all these very basic tools we can do a lot of physics, in fact. For example, the smartphone contains a lot of sensors, you can calculate acceleration, you can measure the magnetic field, you can measure light. So you can do a lot of experiments with your smartphone.


Live demonstration


Let me perhaps give you a live experiment with that not even with the sensors but with the camera. Just using the camera of your smartphone I'm going to show you how you can do low-cost physics. So, this is my smartphone, I hope you see it well, here, I'm gonna turn it upside down so that you can see it and I'm just going to add a drop of water on my camera. So my camera is here and I'm putting a drop of water here. Now it's completely unfocused, and here I have created a low-cost microscope. Look at that. Let me put a flower or something like that nearby, now I have a microscope integrated in my smartphone. I can do it with a bill like that and I can see all the details. And if I put a ruler, I now have a scale integrated to my smartphone and I can measure one millimeter scale. And so just like that I have transformed my smartphone into a microscope which can take pictures, which can take videos and then I can go outside, I can just shoot the real world and then do physics and science from that.


Low-cost tools allow you to do physics wherever you want


You see that low-cost tools really mean tools you have in your pocket and which allow you to do physics wherever you want. We have been using smartphones for years now and also many colleagues all around the world and we have tried to study also the effect and the impact on students and I think one thing which is very clear from the studies we've done is that smartphones help the engagement of the students. They get more fun, they get more engaged in the process. And also one key aspect we found in our teachings is not these low-cost tools or smartphones themselves but the fact that they allow you to go outside of the classroom, outside of the lab room. So now you can go, in the schoolyard or in the street and you can measure real-life stuff and that is a key aspect in these teachings that really transforms the way students see science. Now they understand that science can be all around them not just in a lab room environment or setup.


Embedding digitalisation in the classroom


If you want to use a smartphone, first you have to download free apps and there are many free apps all around the world which were created by universities themselves. For example, there is “Phyphox” or "Physique" which are very good apps which allow you to use all these sensors which are already in your smartphones.


Free resources


Also with my team we have developed many free resources and you can find all of them here, in this low-cost web link as you see. One resource you will find, just to give you an example, is what we called "the Smartphone Physics Challenge." In the Smartphone Physics Challenge we propose you to measure the height of a building, any building, for example, the school itself, with your smartphone and we found 61 different ways to do it, and so we propose you all these ways and we help you understand how to use them with your own students.


The future of teaching and learning through low-cost tools


I think I see low-cost tools as an amazing opportunity to renew the way we teach science, to renew our pedagogy and also to make it more meaningful, to make it also more creative, more engaging and that is true for the students but for the teachers as well. I mean, it is really more fun to get outside and just to measure things around you. Let me give you a very practical example.


Recently, we brought our own students in the forest and we stayed there for one day in the forest and we asked them to measure whatever they wanted: the insects, the wind, the trees, etc. And so they could understand the forest in this low-cost approach. And that really opened new ways for us to teach and also to empower them, to show them that they can act on their environments, that they can understand it better, that they can address real issues and I think that will be a key aspect in the future of studying science, trying to show our children, our students that science can help them act facing the present challenges.


If you are confronting the policy of "no mobile phone allowed", I would say try to make an exception, try to negotiate with everyone around and tell them that you are going to do science and you are going to use the smartphone in a smart way and that is what we do usually in France, we try to negotiate in schools to have an exception to that policy. The other solution is to use tablets, like iPads, which also have many sensors embedded, but I think the best way is trying to tell your superiors that in your course the smartphone will be used in a smart way. And so you have to negotiate for two facts: first, using the smartphone, and then being allowed to go outside.


Additional information

  • Education type:
    School Education
  • Target audience:
    Head Teacher / Principal
    Student Teacher
    Teacher Educator
  • Target audience ISCED:
    Lower secondary education (ISCED 2)
    Upper secondary education (ISCED 3)


Digital tools

School subjects

Natural Sciences

Key competences

Maths and science