Science Teaching with iOS: from the Macro to Micro

Science Teaching with iOS: from the Macro to Micro


(Published as a 3-part series on iPhone Life)

When we peer out at the night sky on a clear, moonless night, we see thousands of individual stars — millions if you count galaxies mixed into the field of view. Look at your finger and you’ll see the intricate swirls and folds that make up your fingerprint. In both cases, we only see the surface of vast processes that bend light and time, or those that create and sustain life. Our human senses aren’t sufficient to perceive the magnitude of the activity, nor the structure, that defines the universe.

Humanity has long sought to enhance its perceptions. And every time it has done so, our assumptions about the universe change. Galileo famously fashioned his own telescope to peer at the moving stars called “planets” and found, encircling Jupiter, its own set of satellites. With the telescope, Galileo was able to increase his own perceptive capability and see more detail. The earth’s place in the universe — something so certain that engineers built complex instruments to model its movement — fell in light of his new understanding.

We now know we circle a middle-of-the-road star on the outskirts of a common spiral galaxy. We do not know how unique earth’s chemistry and energy signatures are, but we do know that our sun isn’t the only star that sports a planetary system.

As our instruments gain sensitivity, they provide details that often undermine our assumptions about our bodies, the world, and the universe. We are in the midst of a knowledge revolution, not just because so much data arrives via the Internet, but because we receive data at ever increasing degrees of precision and detail about everything.

With iPads and iPhones in particular, students can dive into this data and learn more about the universe in an afternoon than any static encyclopedia or textbook ever offered their parents.

Discovering the Universe in the Classroom

Galileo’s revelation was a personal one. It has been hard in the past to bring that kind of intimate experience into the classroom on the scale of the universe. With an iPad, however, students can experience the universe from a number of perspectives.

NASA Visualization Explorer

For a wide range of detailed data, consider the NASA Visualization Explorer (Free). Although NASA might be best known at the moment for landing robot rovers on Mars, it spends plenty of time examining the earth, the solar system, and beyond. NASA Visualization Explorer doesn’t deliver fascinating static images, but rather movies based on data, which demonstrate processes that shape the earth, other planets, or the cosmos. One recent movie used several years of satellite data to illustrate where wild fires ignite and how they spread and retreat.

Another video demonstrates how urbanization has displaced Arizona agriculture, showing farmland becoming subsumed by streets and buildings. Any lesson plan exploring the impacts of urbanization, the future of agriculture, or the speed of change could use this video.

Several videos simulate everything from a black hole consuming a star to the sample collection and analysis on NASA’s Mars flag-rover, Curiosity.

Yes, these videos exist elsewhere, but the value of the app comes from the regular updates from NASA about new visualizations. Visualization stories, as they are called in the app, can be filtered by Earth, Planets, Moons, Sun, and Universe. Unfortunately, NASA doesn’t include metadata or search features, so you might have a hard time finding a visualization to meet your immediate needs (back to searching the Web for that). But this constant feed of new simulations and visualizations can act as a science conversation starter. Bring up the app on a weekly basis, and talk about what’s new. Unlike science textbooks, this is fresh material, just compiled and published, so your students can’t complain that they’ve seen it before.

If you want your students to see space science unfolding before them, the free NASA App HD includes near real-time feeds from various NASA missions as well as NASA TV feeds. NASA broadcasts include an array of topics ranging from the history of space flight, to live news conferences and launches.

When studying the Solar System, it is hard to beat Solar Walk ($2.99) from Vito Technology, which begins as an image of the earth with many light-blue lines circling it. Tap one and you will be given a close-up view of a satellite. All the satellites are rendered in 3D, and a clickable info button reveals information and images associated with the satellite. Solar Walk provides enough satellite detail to have good conversations about orbits, satellite construction, and observation. Combine this app with Google Earth and you can have a good dialog about public and private surveillance. There also is information on the International Space Station.

Solar Walk lets students navigate through the solar system and watch several short videos that compare planet sizes, experience solar eclipses and moon phases, simulate tides, and explore other planetary phenomenon. Solar Walk is easy to navigate, enhances the experience with a mellow soundtrack, and if you have the green-red 3D glasses, the app will bring a little bit of the solar system into the room with you.

Star Walk

If you step back, look and wait for the sun to go down, a number of applications can turn star gazing night into a deep learning experience. Star Walk ($2.99), Distant Suns ($9.99) and Pocket Universe ($1.99) all create virtual views of the night sky and provide various ways to interact with it. Think about star gazing night as school. Those evenings often include a few science teachers roaming among parents and children. With iPads and iPhones pointed at the night sky, everyone can be an expert on the points of light they observe. And as an added bonus, these apps let you turn iPads into private planetariums so students can explore the sky during the day.

Distant Suns ($9.99) includes a lot of information, but most of it isn’t meaningful to the high school science student. The app, however, can easily become an astronomical cheat sheet for the astronomy student.  Need to know magnitudes, variable class, period, parallax of other data, if it exists in public databases, it has probably been imported into Distant Suns. For the sidewalk astronomer, Distant Suns let you quickly find the object or event you left your house to observe.

Star Walk ($2.99) offers a similar interface to its sister program, Solar Walk. Both have a nice sound track and easy-to-use controls. It is much more artistic in feel than the more scientifically-oriented Distant Suns. Star Walk also creates a better-shared learning environment with one tap access to twitter, Facebook, e-mail, camera roll, and printing. The Picture of the Day feature, along with a gallery of galaxies and nebula from various European agencies create daily opportunities to discuss space science. Unfortunately, not all of the images include self-contained descriptions, but tapping a button at the top the display bounces out to the image source for additional detail. Star Walk also includes a very cool augmented reality that maps your location against its star charts in real-time through your camera.

Pocket Universe ($1.99)offers yet another view into the sky, with a much more earth-centric point-of-view. It doesn’t include as many bells and whistles as the other products, but its straightforward interface has helped me identify or find objects quickly and efficiently. Extras include quick access to the night’s events, virtual moon and mars walks, and quizzes about stars and constellations.

Magnifying the Surface

Microscopes have been around since 1590. Up until the age of electronics, they too were personal devices. However, with small camera sensors connected to the lenses, researchers and educators can easily share images on a display in real-time.

Microscopes may be portable, but they aren’t made for fieldwork. Those cameras require power. And traditional microscopes require a level surface that won’t cause back strain, and a good light source, either from electricity, or from an old-fashioned mirror. With increased sophistication comes cost and weight. Scanning Electron Microscopes weigh hundreds of pounds and use dangerous elements. No microscopes travel well.

That is until now. Bodelin, a leader in handheld microscope manufacturing for education, law enforcement, and quality inspections, has introduced the ProScope Mobile for iOS ($399).  ProScope requires the AirMicro (free) app to display its view to an iPad or iPhone.

The ProScope Mobile creates its own Wi-Fi network. So instead of the kids in the back of the room with poor eyesight straining to see a washed out image at the front of the room, they can now be one of more than 250 participants in a local Wi-Fi network that streams live video to an iPad, iPod Touch, or iPhone. And rather than let the teacher drive image capture, each device can capture its own images.

The basic ProScope Mobile comes with a 50X lens. Once connected, just press the device up against a surface and it transmits the image. Quality ranges from QVGA (320×240) to VGA (640X480). Plenty of resolution to look at everything from rocks, to insects, to skin and fabrics.

The coolest thing about the ProScope Mobile isn’t its classroom application. Think about taking a class loaded with iPhones and iPads into the field, where no Wi-Fi exists, and turning the microscope on forest debris or piles of sand. What’s hiding just out of reach of the human eye? What does the skin of a slug really look like? How many different insects can you see in the field of view? How does moss differ from lichen in its attachment to a decaying log?

The ProScope Mobile isn’t the least expensive option for magnifying this, but it is probably the most flexible. Other devices require a USB connection to a PC. The ability to create its own Wi-Fi makes the ProScope Mobile ideal for shared fieldwork, even in the most remote locations. The ProScope is American-made in Oregon. Its rugged, straightforward design make it an ideal classroom companion for the sciences, hard and soft.

Magnification makes it easy to see the air pockets in the resin of my once-prized Moroccan trilobite, which proves it’s a Moroccan fake, not a real fossil.

Looking Inward

The journey need not stop at the surface. The latest biological and chemical research on life reaches within the cell to explore life-sustaining processes and data encoding. The most notable of these come from the results of the human genome project, which open sourced its data.

Illumina CEO Jay Flately donated his genome for educational purposes and wrapped it around his company’s iPad app, MyGenome ($.099).

MyGenome includes a tour of chromosomes that illustrates how genetic variants in different locations translate into health impacts or biological traits. Students can view individual genes, their locations, and biological impacts, and visualize where and how genome sequences differ from the “reference” human genome.

Using MyGenome also helps people understand disease risks, genetically determined conditions and predispositions, and carrier traits, how different genetic variants contribute to health risks and what diseases can be passed on to children. You can even explore how variations in a genome affect drug treatment responses and side affects.

Eventually Illumina plans to allow people to download their own genome into MyGenome so they work with their physicians to identify their own risks and how certain treatment choices might work better, or worse, based on their genome.

Like deeper explorations of the universe, the decoding of the human genome created more questions than answers. Popular science assumptions like the irrelevancy of junk DNA are going by the wayside as researchers demonstrate that most DNA has a meaningful function in the creation of life like transcriptional and translational regulation of protein-coding sequences.

If you look below the surface of those swirls on your fingers that represent your uniqueness, more uniqueness, and more complexity, lies in wait. The Human Genome Project was funded based on its promise in curing disease. Its true value has so far come from the new lens it created for understanding biology. Decoding the human genome, like peering back toward the origins of the universe, has raised as many questions as it answers.

The Range of Teaching

The instruments of science have opened up new vistas. There is so much information now that it is hard to fathom not only what we know, but to confront what we don’t know: from the way genes influence biology to what mechanisms are making the universe expand.

By teaching our children and ourselves to ask better questions, we can continue the quest for knowledge. We can move away from the rote memorization of facts about the number of moons around Jupiter. Instead, we can talk about how science has evolved from Galileo seeing four moons in his crude 30-power telescope in 1610, to NASA missions identifying 67 to date, not to mention a thin set of rings.

The iPad and the iPhone can bring real-time, personalized science to students, which goes beyond looking at slides or splitting geodes. They can become part of the greater inquiry by interacting with others through social media, running their own simulations, and creating their own experiences aided by these new tools.

I think students become much more interested in science when teachers admit that science doesn’t know everything, exposing the limitations of our instruments and our imaginations in order to inspire the next generation of student to fill those gaps. That is how science progresses: not by knowing, but by questioning everything.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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