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Tech Talk

Taking Science Home With Technology

In this month’s Science and Children, authors present ingenious ways to bring science learning into children’s homes. Though access to technology at home is on the rise, some children still do not have computers in their homes; they do, however, have better access to handheld computer technologies such as smartphones and tablets (KewalRamani, et al. 2018). With an eye on equitable access, this month’s Tech Talk presents apps for smartphones and tablets that families can use with students at home.

Before we dig into the technologies for this issue of Tech Talk, here are five recommendations for getting families going with science apps at home: 1.Be consistent: Create a section on your class web page for families and post links to apps for home use there. Be sure to post app links for all possible devices (e.g., Apple store, Google Play). 2.Be in the “know”: Survey families at the start of the year to ask about their access to technology and the internet at home. 3.Choose wisely: When possible, choose apps that work on Apple and Android. If you cannot find apps that work on both, look for similar apps for each that can accomplish the same goal. 4.Anticipate FAQs: Post simple web-based videos on your class website with instructions for how to access the apps/sites at home. 5.Free up RAM: Let families know that it’s a good habit to close all other apps any time they’re going to use assigned apps at home. You can post a quick video showing families how to do this.

Google Maps

What’s Google Maps all about?

Google Maps is a free internet-based mapping product from Google that does not require a login for use. There are three data layers for viewing maps of regions across the planet: default, satellite and terrain. Google Maps not only provides directions from one place to another but it also enables you to explore specific regions in detail. It’s this latter feature that we’ll capitalize upon for science learning.

What’s good about Google Maps?

Google Maps is a user-friendly app familiar to many smartphone users. Its use towers over other competing map apps (Clement 2018), which makes it a great choice to send home because family members will likely have experience with Google Maps. The detail and accuracy of the app can also help build upon children’s sense of place associated with their homes and expand it to include surrounding areas.

How can you use Google Maps?

NGSS’s 2-ESS2-2 is focused on students developing models to represent the shapes and kinds of land and bodies of water in an area. Maps are a great way get students to start noticing the world around them. For this standard, we want them to notice that there are water bodies nearby and that they can look quite different from each other. Keep in mind that maps are abstract representations, so your second graders will need the opportunity to make explicit connections between maps and real-world water bodies in the course of learning. Find links to apps, resources, and NGSS@NSTA Performance Expectations for each practice under Internet Resources.

  • Developing and Using Models: Open a unit on water bodies and landforms by having your second graders and their families find water bodies near their homes on Google Maps by using the default view. The default view makes it easy to find local water bodies because water is clearly indicated in blue against the gray and green of the land. Start by entering the home address into Google Maps and then search the surrounding areas to find water bodies. Send students home with a sheet “Waterbodies Near My Home” with two to three columns wide enough for them to sketch the shape of several different types of water bodies they find. Include a space for students to write their ideas about which type of water they found. Provide language support for families by including a list of different types of water bodies in the packet that goes home (e.g., rivers, ponds, lakes and even bays, ocean inlets and more)
  • Engaging in Argument From Evidence: After students have learned more about waterbodies in class, have them revisit Google Maps at home. Ask students to sketch local water bodies again, but this time have them identify the type of water body based on evidence they learned about in class and that they can collect from Google Maps. What characteristics of each water body can serve as evidence for claims about the type? Provide support for student responses with a sentence frame for the claim and evidence for each sketch. Include basic characteristics of water bodies in a packet sent home to help families support students (e.g., ponds and lakes have a closed shape; lakes are larger than ponds; to get to the other side of a river you need to cross over water).
Google Maps

Google Expeditions

What’s Google Expeditions all about?

Hang on to your hat! Google Expeditions is a wild app that treats users to science learning through augmented and virtual reality experiences. And it’s free. Early researchers described a spectrum of mixed reality that ranges from the entirely real world to the entirely virtual world; augmented reality (AR) falls near the real-world end of this spectrum (Milgram and Kishino 1994). On smartphones and tablets, AR apps use built-in cameras to enable users to view the real world around them. AR software then superimposes a digital image onto the real-world view through the camera. Hence, reality is augmented. Some AR images are interactive, allowing users to zoom in/out and move “around” the image with the e-device camera trained on the area in space where the digital image is projected. Virtual reality (VR) is on the far, virtual end of the mixed reality spectrum (Milgram and Kishino 1994). VR is immersive and replaces the user’s view of the real world entirely with a completely digital environment. For a full VR experience, use a VR headset that enables you to be immersed in the digital world.

Google Expeditions offers access to imagery in three modes: AR, VR, and “View.” In Google’s AR Expeditions the digital image of a subject (e.g., insect, dinosaur, boat) is superimposed onto the camera view. It works best with a flat, uncluttered surface nearby to act as the background field for the image. Google’s VR Expeditions comprises a bundled set of 360-degree images of scenes. These expeditions are available in two modes: VR and View. For the full immersive VR experience, we use the least expensive headset option, Google Cardboard ($10–15 on Amazon) with a smartphone or tablet. In VR mode, content is embedded in clickable tFargets within the 360-degree image. The content pops up in a textbox when selected. In some expeditions, the text in VR mode is accompanied by an audio reading of the content. Google Expeditions also offers “View,” a mode for VR expeditions that gives access to the spectacular imagery of the VR expeditions without the headset. In the View mode, you can access the same VR content from a static textbox with clickable text sections that are linked to regions of the image. For the full VR experience at home, you can ask families to buy a Google Cardboard headset or have your own class set of Google Cardboard headsets that you send home for this take-home science learning experience.

What’s good about Google Expeditions?

There’s lots to love about Google Expeditions. Mixed reality experiences foster discovery-based learning that can “bring investigative, interactive and independent learning to life” (Yuen, Yaoyuneyon, and Johnson 2011, p. 129). The Google Expeditions app is designed to work with Apple and Android mobile devices as well as some Chromebooks with touchscreen. The app is flexible, allowing users to access the imagery in three different modes. Google Expeditions has a big wow factor and, with well-designed learning experiences, can lead to truly impactful, student-centered learning. The flexibility of the resource, its ease of use, the stunning imagery and its price tag make it an ideal technology for families to use for at-home science investigations. Google Expeditions boasts over 900 VR tours and 100 AR tours. To find the right expeditions for your students, browse the resources or use the search bar to look up expeditions by category or keyword.

How can you use Google Expeditions?

Assign your fifth-graders to work with the Google Expedition “Ecosystem” multiple times throughout your unit on ecosystems. The Ecosystem expedition is VR and View capable with seven interactive digital ecosystem scenes to explore. Scene #7 shows a microscopic ecosystem, falling outside the assessment boundary for 5-LS2-1. Therefore, in practice for fifth graders, this app provides access to six ecosystems. Notably, #6 is an urban scene, a rare find in ecosystem learning resources. Each scene shows living and nonliving components in a realistic digital artist’s rendering of each different ecosystem. The text content available for each scene includes a brief introduction to the ecosystem, a set of three progressively challenging questions (along with the answers) and a list of relevant terms/phrases with explanations that are linked to specific portions of the digital images. Rather than using this content like a textbook reading assignment, instead try using this content as a support for interpreting the components of each ecosystem pictured in the app. Find links to apps, resources and NGSS@NSTA Performance Expectations for each practice under Internet Resources below.

  • Developing and Using Models: Use Google Expeditions at the start of the unit to elicit students’ preconceptions about ecosystem concepts and components. Task students with using the app at home to guide the creation of a model for two or more ecosystems showing the different organisms, relationships, and system level dynamics they already know about (food web, trophic levels, chemical exchanges etc…). These early models will give you an idea about what students think about ecosystems. Retain this initial set of models for students to revisit and write about later in the unit after they have learned about the biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems and the “movement of matter among plants, animals, decomposers, and the environment” (NGSS, 5-LS2-1). This provides a terrific assessment opportunity for you and a great chance for students to see concrete evidence of their learning.
  • Analyzing and Interpreting Data: Frame as an introductory inquiry investigation or enable students to elaborate on their learning later in the unit by tasking them with a second dive into the Ecosystem expedition at home. Pose an inquiry question such as “how do different ecosystems compare?” that requires students to examine components of multiple scenes, analyze their findings, and formulate interpretations about what these data mean about the inherent nature of ecosystems. The app’s high-quality imagery embeds student learning in real-world applications, lending authenticity to their experience. For the many students in urban settings, this app makes explicit connections to their lived experiences.
Google Expeditions

Links to App and Curriculum Websites

Google Expeditions expeditions/?modal_active=none

Google Earth Education. Resources for Beginners to Gurus

TES (2019). Google for Education in Partnership with TES.

Performance expectations for science and engineering practices from NGSS@NSTA

Developing and Using Models

Analyzing and Interpreting Data

Engaging in Argument From Evidence


Clement J. (2018, May). Most popular mapping apps in the United State as of April 2018, by monthly users (in millions)

KewalRamani A., et al. 2018. Student Access to Digital Learning Resources Outside of the Classroom (NCES 2017-098).

Milgram P., and Kishino F.. 1994. A taxonomy of mixed reality visual displays. IEICE Transactions on Information Systems, E77-D (12).

NGSS Lead States. 2013. Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

NSTA. “Science and Engineering Practices.” 

NSTA. Crosscutting Concepts.

U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Yuen S.C., Yaoyuneyong G., and Johnson E.. 2011. Augmented Reality: An Overview and Five Directions for AR in Education. Journal of Educational Technology Development and Exchange 4 (1).


General Science Technology



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