Science Apps for the Classroom

Time for another post in my series of “Long-overdue responses to questions that were worth blogging about.” It’s a mouthful to be sure, but it comes up more often than you might think. Today’s question comes from Allison.


I’m a student teacher right now in a ninth grade earth science class and I’d love to find more ways to involve technology in the classroom. Do you have any suggestions for iphone or ipod apps to use in a classroom at the middle school or high school level? (I’m focusing on Earth Science but all science apps are welcome).



Great question, Allison! Let’s dive right in by exploring my own phone. Here’s a screenshot of my “Science” apps folder on my iPhone. I have a 4S, but these should all work on any iPhone or iPod with a camera, compass, and GPS.  They’re not organized in any particular order, so I’ll just go through them from top left to bottom right.

1) Compass (Built-in) – Comes standard on new iPhones, gives heading and GPS coordinates, can be calibrated to True North or Magnetic North. Nothing too special there, but still mighty useful.

2) iHandy Carpenter ($1.99) – While you can get the basic level for free, I’ve found I really like having the extra tools available in the paid version of this app. While not strictly scientific, when the iPhone was relatively new and there were few geology apps on the market, I found a lot of utility in the different functions this app provided.

3) Basic GPS ($0.99) – I snagged this app because even though it’s redundant in giving you GPS information, it gives a bit more information than the compass or map, including UTM coordinates, exact location error (as opposed to a visual circle), altitude (hugely helpful) and altitude error. The added feature of being able to e-mail coordinates comes in handy for mapping and coordinating group projects.

4) iSeisometer (Free) – This app is really straightforward. It uses the accelerometers to provide a graphical readout of how the phone is being moved around in 3 dimensions. It’s mostly a novelty, HOWEVER, in the event of a earthquake, should you react fast enough and actually open this app, and then put it on a hard surface and record the earthquake, you can send your data (along with your GPS coordinates) to the USGS. That’s pretty neat, but unless you’re in an earthquake zone and extremely calm during a crisis, may never actually be used.

5) Convertbot ($1.99) – An app for converting things. Loads of choices, engaging interface, worth a shot if you need something more than just Google. I got it while it was being promoted for free, so I can’t speak to whether or not it’s worth the price.

6) Skeptical Science (Free) – Have you ever gotten into a frustrating argument with a climate change denier? Did you find yourself stumped by their arguments even though you knew they’re flawed? Then get this app and educate yourself. It’s pretty easy to use, and has lots of good info, whether or not anyone is convinced by your “liberal propaganda conspiracy app” is on you.

7) Geolcompass ($2.99) – This app is a digital version of an analog transit compass, e.g. a Brunton. I’ve been working on a similar app for awhile, but it hasn’t hit the app store yet. If you know what a Brunton is, you may want this app, if not, don’t stress it.

8 ) Geocompass ($0.99) – Another attempt to digitize the analog transit compass. This one has a more Spartan interface, so if you don’t care about graphics, this one may suffice. I have yet to rigorously test either to see how well they actually work, but if they work as well as the built-in compass, you should be fine.

9) Planets (Free) – This app might top the list as one I actually use on a regular basis. How often do you find yourself outside at night and a debate breaks out as to which heavenly body is a planet vs. a star? Well I have. And this app is usually how I settle the debate. Not as full-featured as Skyview Free below, but the interface on Planets is really clean and clear. You can see what’s in the sky at your location in that moment. You can also easily look up when celestial objects should be visible, which for something even for something as simple as the sun can be surprisingly handy.

10) Lambert ($2.99) – An app I have never used. I can tell it has some sort of utility for geologists, but not really the type of geology I do these days. If you do know what this app is for an how to use it, feel free to explain it to us all in the comments!

And then Cancer attacked my T-Rex pinata.

11) Skyview Free (Free -or- full-featured for $1.99) – This one has a lot in common with Planets, but I use them for totally different things. While Planets gives a lot of good information, Skyview has a far more interactive interface. Sometimes this is less convenient, sometimes more. The coolest thing, for me, is being able to chart the suns course across the sky and quickly find and identify constellations. I could see kids in the classroom having a lot of fun with this one.

12) Mendeley (Free) – My final app is really more about utility than fun. Mendeley is a program for cataloging and organizing academic PDFs. Almost every scientific article I have is uploaded to Mendeley via the desktop application and then synced to the cloud. This allows me to read articles on my iPad or access them through my phone. I almost never sit and read articles on my phone, but in a pinch when I needed something from a specific reference that wasn’t on hand, being able to quickly download it to my phone was invaluable.

BONUS APP: Kepler Explorer (Free) – This app just came out, so I haven’t had time to play with it much, but it purports to provide information based upon data retrieved by the Kepler Space Telescope, which we’ve talked about before on the show. While these may not be objects you can readily see in the night’s sky, it’s nice to know you still have the data literally at your fingertips.

So there’s my list for some handy sci-apps for your sci-class. I think gadgets like the iPhone have a huge potential as teaching tools and I’m looking forward to the day where people use these incredible devices as a way to understand the Universe rather than fire unhappy fowl at egg-stealing swine (even if I do have, and enjoy, that particular game, but you get the point). My list is by no means exhaustive, so I’m sure there will be more tasty apps to be found in the comments.


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2 Responses to Science Apps for the Classroom

  1. JesseNo Gravatar 3 May, 2012 at 7:29 pm #

    Hey paleopals! I got the app sci.spy for my kids. We use it when we go to the park, or on nature walks, or hikes. The app is a portal for sharing plants and animals you “spy” while on your excursion. You can also browse the submissions of others, or complete “missions”. Its a fun way to get the kiddos interested and looking around as opposed to the constant “are we there yet?” Keep up the good science!…sort of.

  2. GregNo Gravatar 17 June, 2012 at 12:19 pm #

    Hi there, I thought I’d comment about the Lambert app:
    Yes, its another Brunton app, with similar features to the others plus maybe a few others: (It takes GPS coordinates with each measurement, switches between planes and lineations, can be calibrated, ‘fieldbook mode’ lets you make notes for each point, displays data by location on a map, and can email everything or sync-up in real time to a laptop) BUT its biggest advantage is how it displays spatial data (in a bitchin’ real-time stereonet), and its ability to quickly generate really nice looking sigma-pi plots and rose diagrams which you can email or ‘print’.
    I have used it to make plots from data I’ve input manually, because I’ve yet to find a good (i.e. not overly tedious) stereonet program for mac. Not super practical for serious fieldwork (it won’t tell you quantitatively where the mean pole is, only visually,) but it has some utility for teaching undergrads to visualize stereonets.. Once, when assisting with an introductory mapping class, I had my iphone abducted by a certain professor who used this app to pontificate about plotting for 50 minutes, in the field, to students who had just taken over an hour to get something like 10 brunton measurements.. needless to say, my phone smelled like kippered fish for a few days after I got it back.

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