iPads Improve Classroom Learning (New Harvard Study)

With new iPad apps, this 18th century Orrery representation of our solar system can finally be retired.
With new, increasingly engaging, and more to-scale iPad apps, this 18th century Orrery representation of our solar system can finally be retired.

As Ramsey Musallam’s TED talk articulates, science is messy. Activities are active and engaging. Science is a contact content area. Instruction in Life Science should include opportunities for students to dig in the dirt and explore our biological surroundings. Additionally, instruction in Physical Science should include experiments that encourage students to interact with different simple machines to explore concepts of friction. But what about Earth & Space science? Authentic hands-on activities are often much more difficult to create. While student-made volcanos and colorful cakes representing the Earth’s layers are commonplace, how do teachers bring what is going on beyond our world into the classroom?

A new Harvard study has the answer: iPads.

The problem with activities in Space Science isn’t lack of ideas, those openly flow throughout curricula and educational blogs. The problem is scale. Our solar system is enormous and our universe is almost incomprehensibly gigantic. How can teachers create scale models to highlight this enormous size without  misrepresenting the information? Do we really have to dust off the old Orrery models from the 1700s? The Harvard study concluded that iPads provide a solution. More specifically, iPads can do what teachers cannot: generate interactive realistic scale-models that students can access in a single location.

Co-author of the study Philip Sadler put it best when he said, “While it may seem obvious that hands-on use of computer simulations that accurately portray scale would lead to better understanding, we don’t generally teach that way.” While iPads and tablets have been getting attacked in the media lately for their lack of instructional support (i.e. students don’t learn they simply check out Facebook, Pinterest, or their email), this study concluded otherwise.

The bottom line is, iPad applications can do things that teachers cannot. Obviously, teachers can do things iPads will never be able to do, but that is not the point. The point is, iPads do provide another powerful teaching and learning tool for instruction in the sciences. While the classroom management behind the implementation of the iPad is up to the classroom teacher, there are insanely powerful educational apps out there waiting to be downloaded.

Here are a few of my personal favorite Earth & Space Science iPad Apps:

  1. NASA Viz (Visualization Explorer) (Free to download)
  2. Solar Walk  ($2.99 to download)
  3. 3D Sun (Free to download)
  4. Earth as Art (Free to download)

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