Tools for Scientific Thinking

Developed by: Ron Thornton and David Sokoloff

middle schoolhigh schoolintro collegeinter-mediateupper levelgrad school   other

 Intro College Calculus-based
calc based
 Intro College Algebra-based
alg based

Mechanics  Thermal / Statistical
Lab  Studio

What? Laboratory activities that use microcomputer-based laboratory tools to develop both conceptual understanding and quantitative laboratory skills. Each activity consists of a series of guided investigations suitable for either the high school or introductory college laboratory.

Why? The materials have been extensively tested and shown to improve students' conceptual understanding. The units include a detailed teacher's guide and the original word processing files, so you can modify the activities for your situation.

Why not? The materials were developed in the 1980s and not been updated since they were published in 2004. It is difficult to find information about them beyond what is available in the materials that you can purchase from Vernier.

Instructor effort required

  • Low

Resources required

  • Computers for students
  • Advanced lab equipment
  • Cost for students
  • Tables for group work

Developer's website: Tools for Scientific Thinking
Intro Article: R. Thornton, Tools for Scientific Thinking: Learning Physical Concepts with Real-Time Laboratory Measurement Tools, in New Directions in Educational Technology (1992), Vol. 96, p. 139.

Tools for Scientific Thinking are published in a series of books by Vernier:

  • The Motion and Force laboratory guide contains five units, each requiring about three hours of laboratory work. The labs involve simple apparatus such as dynamics carts, ramps, and springs. Students use their own body motions extensively in the introductory units. A motion detector is required for all of the units and a force sensor is used in two of the units.
  • The Heat and Temperature laboratory guide contains four units, each requiring about three hours: Introduction to Heat and Temperature, Energy Transfer and Temperature Changes, Changing Phase: Ice to Water and Water to Steam, and Heat Energy Transfer. Two temperature probes are required. A heat pulser is required for approximately half of the investigations. (Contact Vernier Software for details on the heat pulser.)


Bronze Validation
This is the third highest level of research validation, corresponding to:
  • at least 1 of the "based on" categories
  • at least 1 of the "demonstrated to improve" categories
  • at least 1 of the "studied using" categories
(Categories shown below)

Research Validation Summary

Based on Research Into:

  • theories of how students learn
  • student ideas about specific topics

Demonstrated to Improve:

  • conceptual understanding
  • problem-solving skills
  • lab skills
  • beliefs and attitudes
  • attendance
  • retention of students
  • success of underrepresented groups
  • performance in subsequent classes

Studied using:

  • cycle of research and redevelopment
  • student interviews
  • classroom observations
  • analysis of written work
  • research at multiple institutions
  • research by multiple groups
  • peer-reviewed publication