Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 3, NO. 6 / OCTOBER 1984

inside atari


New breakthrough in science learning

Antic Staff Writer

"Good morning, class.  Sit down at your lab stations, open your books to page 28, and put the Temperature cartridge into your Atari computers.  Today, we'll calculate the dew point temperature.  Can anybody tell me what 'dew point' means?"
   Scenes like these are becoming more common in today's schoolrooms.  Atari Learning System's new AtariLab educational software incorporating laboratory instruments is taking its place in junior high and high school science classes across the nation.
   AtariLab developers Priscilla W Laws, Ph.D. said "Young students are often uninterested in science because they're only asked to read about it.  Rarely are they given an opportunity to perform experiments." Laws, Chairperson of the Physics and Astronomy Department at Dickenson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, believes that science can best be learned through doing.
AtariLab 1

AtariLab stations invite experimentation.  They are easy to install, simple to use, and accept either joystick or keyboard input.  Data sets are displayed on four-color graphs, and results can be seen quickly.
   The AtariLab Starter Set ($89.95) helps students explore principles of temperature and heat energy.  It contains a hand-held electric temperature sensor, a standard alcohol bulb thermometer, a 16K program cartridge (disk versions of the program cartridges are being produced for Apple and Commodore computer systems), a 144-page manual, and the AtariLab interface box which connects the sensor to Port 2. The interface box is used with every AtariLab module, but only comes with the Starter Set.
   When running, the Temperature Module turns your Atari into a colorful recording thermometer capable of measuring temperatures between - 5 and 45 degrees Celsius (23-113 degrees Fahrenheit).  It records the temperature over time periods from 10 seconds to 24 hours.  As temperature readings are taken, they are plotted on the screen in full color.  Data also may be stored on disk or sent to a printer.
AtariLab 2

Other modules currently under development include a light module which will allow experiments involving the measurement and absorption of light, a Crimelab module for experiments in forensic science, and a timekeeper module which provides general purpose timing functions.  Atari Learning Systems plans to price these AtariLab modules at $49.95 each.
   The Isaac Newton Junior High School, in Spanish Harlem, New York was one of the first schools asked to test AtariLab equipment in the classroom.  The school received three Starter Sets in April 1984.  Three of the school's 16 Atari computers were moved to the science lab.  There, John Ferro, a computer science instructor, attached Starter Sets to the computers.  Ferro and science teacher Vivien Fernandez used AtariLabs to teach several seventh and eighth grade "Introduction To Physical Science" lessons.  "They're very simple to use, and the kids like them," Ferro said.
   School director Leonard Bernstein feels the AtariLabs are "a good beginning point" for seventh and eighth grade science students.  Bernstein said the three AtariLabs will become permanent fixtures in the school's classroom laboratory, and will be used "far more extensively" in the fall.  If funds become available, Bernstein wishes to install four or five AtariLabs in each classroom laboratory, creating a 5:1 ratio of students to computers.
   Though the first AtariLab instruction manual outlines more than 100 temperature and heat energy experiments, the AtariLab can be used in any similar experiment.  AtariLab encourages students to create and conduct their own experiments.  This feature was unexpectedly demonstrated during an April AtariLab preview at the Manhattan offices of Warner Communications, Atari's parent company.  Ferro and five of his students pleasantly surprised Laws and the AtariLab development team by using the AtariLab Temperature Module to perform experiments which the development team had never considered.  Ferro, for example, demonstrated a way to measure friction by rubbing the temperature sensor against different surfaces.
   Naturally, AtariLab does have room for improvements.  For example, although the manual briefly advises against using the computer near any liquids you're measuring, the Temperature Sensor's 30-inch cord makes this separation impossible.  In busy classrooms, this could add a new and expensive meaning to the word "dump." Students also must avoid dipping the Temperature Sensor into any chemicals which might dissolve the sensor's plastic shell.  Such chemicals include acetone, carbon tetrachloride, and gasoline.
   Currently, the system can only measure and record information.  Ferro suggested that the AtariLab take advantage of its potential to control experiments.  For example, Ferro said the temperature sensor might be used with a thermostat program to control a fan.  Ferro also said that disk-based AtariLab software would be superior to the cartridge-based software now being produced.  Disk-based software would permit an experimenter to alter the AtariLab program to fit the needs of a particular experiment.  Such software would allow the AtariLab user to conduct a greater variety of experiments.
   Bernstein and Ferro also suggested that future instruction manuals be written in greater detail, and recommended that Atari sell Temperature Sensors capable of measuring higher temperatures.

Atari plans to offer such a high-range temperature sensor, said Leslie Wolf, Product Manager for Atari Learning Systems.  The sensor will be compatible with the original Temperature Module.  Atari will also offer a disk-based Advanced Temperature Module, which will have greater data-handling capabilities, and will be compatible with the new temperature sensor.  Both products are now scheduled to be released during the summer of 1985.
   Future $49.95 AtariLab modules will help students explore biofeedback, low-level nuclear radiation, robotics, and more than a dozen other topics.  A new module is to be introduced approximately every four to six months.  The Crimelab module will contain a "Lie Detector" program.
   Creative students will surely try their hands at creating their own sensors for use with the AtariLab's interface.  Input to the interface is achieved through four pairs of RCA phono jacks.  Any device with an electrical resistance similar to that of your paddle controllers, for example, can be used with the first pair of ports.  Electrical switches similar to paddle triggers and joysticks may be used with two other pairs, and the final pair of jacks tap the computer's + 5 volt power supply.
   A doctor at the University of Pennsylvania plans to replace $1,300 worth of analytical laboratory equipment with a $140 AtariLab station and an Atari 80OXL computer.  Dr. David Robinson, M.D., a staff member of the university's Department of Pharmacology, will use the AtariLab Light module to study X-rays of cell tissue.  "I feel fairly sure the Atari will work as well as, or better, than our current system," Robinson said.  Doctors in the pharmacology department have used Atari computers in the lab for nearly two years. (See "An Atari in Brain Research" in this issue.)