Scientists produce, manipulate and analyze vast quantities data, often on a daily basis. Contemporary spreadsheet software programs such as Microsoft Excel and Google Spreadsheets streamline these processes, enabling scientists to sift through staggering amounts of data accurately and efficiently. Training students how to access information stored in databases, as well as how to manipulate and analyze it efficiently via spreadsheet software should be part of every secondary science classroom.
While spreadsheets are an excellent way to record data, their true advantage over pen-and-paper data tables is the ease with which the data can be manipulated. Rarely do scientists use data “as is.” Data is often converted into different units, mathematically combined with other data or inserted into mathematical equations. Doing this by hand is both time-consuming and error-prone. Instead, contemporary scientists write formulas for the mathematical operations they want to apply to the data and perform hundreds, even thousands of calculations instantaneously as entire columns of data are manipulated at once. This YouTube video shows how this is done.
A second major advantage of recording data in spreadsheets is the ability to visualize trends and patterns by graphing the data. It’s notoriously difficult to identify what, if any, trend a data set is following when it’s displayed only in tabular form. Spreadsheet software allows the user to easily graph the data in a variety of forms: pie chart, bar graph, line graph, scatter plot, etc. This YouTube video demonstrates not only how to transform tabular data into graphical form, but also how to add a trend line.
A third major advantage conferred by spreadsheet software is the ability to create interactive activities or simulations that do not require an Internet connection. An excellent example of this are the “Chemical Excelets” produced by Prince George’s Community College. In the “DNA and Thermal Denaturation” excelet (see below) students observe how changing the composition of the DNA double-helix affects its denaturation temperature, allowing them to explore the connection between Hydrogen bonding and DNA integrity:
This site provides free, downloadable interactive spreadsheets that allow students to explore a variety of activities related to atomic structure, properties and chemical reactivity. Teachers interested in developing their own interactive “Excelets” can learn how to do so here.