Made to measure

13th June 2003 at 01:00
Verdicts, convictions, predictions

Roger Frost discovers how Data Harvest's Flash Logger livens up data-logging, especially when teamed up with the RM Tablet PC

Doing science experiments may be the last thing on your mind over the summer months, but some newly arrived kit can help to ease the load and even bring a bit of fun to the potentially dry world of data-logging.

Until recently data-logging has been discouragingly clunky, with sensors rarely leaving the cupboard, flat batteries, knotted wires and the weirdest plugs imaginable - only the latest sensors from US firm PASCO have come anywhere close to offering solid success.

But here we have Flash Logger, a datalogger from Data Harvest - a company well known in science for its range of loggers and sensors - offering a new slant on things. If buttons on machines inevitably mean that kids press them at the wrong moment, the Flash Logger has the feature found on the best technology: it has no buttons and no power socket. But push it into the computer, plug in the range of Data Harvest SmartQ sensors, and you can do as much as the science curriculum asks.

It is a portable set-up with a wide range of measurement parameters and it's all core curriculum too - like sticking a probe in a pile of mown grass to check out fermentation or measuring oxygen levels in a pond. Back indoors you could see how many ice cubes a drink takes to cool, or how fast milk sours in the summer warmth.

The point is that investigating science, and especially everyday science, is where "data-logging" earns its place, indoors or out.

The Flash Logger works through a Compact Flash Slot you can find on Pocket PCs and Tablet PCs. With its software installed, you have a tidy, portable and reliable set-up that takes its power from the computer. With a PC card adapter costing a few pounds, Flash Logger also works with laptops running Windows XP.

Teamed with the teacher version of the RM Tablet PC, the result is elegant: plug in, start Data Harvest's Sensing Science software and you are soon measuring temperatures. Though the software looks disorganised, it does the job and works well on the Tablet PC. For example, you move the stylus on the screen to take readings, zoom in on a graph and calculate rates of change if you care to. For this kind of use a Tablet PC is very intuitive.

Better still is that pupils can print the graph to the Tablet PC's software "printer": this surprise feature gives a picture they can use in Journal - a new Windows tool akin to an on-screen exercise book. In this way pupils can adorn a graph with labels to say what happened, or highlight bits of it with a fluorescent "marker". Adding photographs is easier than usual too - we loaded ours (from a phone) into a shared area and picked them up over the wireless system. In this way, Journal becomes the place to file lab reports - in best handwriting, as is the way when you use Tablets.

Adding to the good value, the Data Harvest Flash Logger package also slots into a Pocket PC and lets you measure in much the same way. It is here that the Sensing Science software really shines: not since the Texas Instruments calculator have we seen so many graph analysis tools in a device this small. When Pocket PCs can cost pound;200 and still pack as much power as big machines we use in school, data-logging in science labs can take an interesting turn. Sadly, the Pocket PC reality is rather different: when these electronic diaries lose their charge, they take the software, and your settings, with them. In short, Pocket PCs are good at forgetting, not a feature we cherish in education.

The marriage of Flash Logger with a Tablet PC, however, seems enduring. The Tablet is a Windows PC with good, hard disk memory like any laptop. RM also sells an inexpensive thick rubber jacket which immediately turns "don't knock-me" devices into ones you can imagine pupils picking up from a pile.

And now that the latest teacher version boasts a power-saving Intel Centrino chip, the lab bench could be a touch clearer from charging cable.

And we can get out more. What remains is getting used to writing on the skiddy Tablet surface - something I plan to do before I forget how to do it on paper.

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