A software tool kit encourages students to ask questions and look for deeper reasons behind observations, helping them to think and act like real science investigators. The new approach could spark and sustain interest in science and lead today's youth to choose careers in photonics and other scientific fields. The new software, called nQuire, was developed by researchers at Nottingham and The Open universities and was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Its creators say it engages children's interest more effectively than traditional science lessons where teachers often dispense facts from a classroom desk. Using mobile computing devices, the software enables students to conduct their own experiments. They can find and analyze data and reach their own conclusions based on hypotheses that they have chosen themselves. Students in Nottingham investigate the effects of noise pollution on bird feeding. Images courtesy of Mike Sharples, The Open University. "Using our software, children aged 11 to 14 were able to conduct scientific investigations of personal interest," said Eileen Scanlon of The Open University, a co-leader of the project. "They used the nQuire computer-based tool kit to engage in structured inquiry learning between the classroom, home and outdoors." Schoolchildren in Nottingham and Milton Keynes used portable netbooks with built-in cameras, location sensors and voice recorders as well as data probes for measuring atmospheric conditions. To gather data, they went to the playground, a local nature reserve and their own neighborhoods. Their netbooks were wirelessly linked together, and their data readings of light, wind and temperature were updated to a central database, enabling sharing and analysis of their findings back in class. The software requires the students to reason about the natural sciences as a complex system and to explore how others relate to the world around them. The program also allows teachers to select and modify the scripts as well as to monitor and guide the students' activities. Projects using nQuire can also be taken home, helping to integrate home and school learning and even to engage parents. Students at Milton Keynes investigate microclimates on the school grounds. The project showed that the software not only had a positive effect on learning outcomes, but also led to sustained enjoyment of science lessons and a small but genuine improvement in pupils' understanding of the scientific process. The researchers suggested that by supporting a process of inquiry, the software can help students apply an analytical attitude to their own lives. "We are hoping to develop an international partnership of research centers engaged in similar inquiry science projects at University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany; Linnaeus University, Sweden; National Institute of Education, Singapore; Stanford University; [and] University of Twente, the Netherlands, based on the links we have already developed with the projects there," Scanlon said. She added that teachers, systems developers and educational designers can run demonstration inquiries through the web-based nQuire interface, or can download the software to extend existing inquiries or to author new ones.