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Tech Talk

Joyful Science

What a great Science and Children issue to launch the new school year, Joyful Science! In this issue of Tech Talk, you will find reviews of two outstanding apps that will, no doubt, bring your students joy. You will also find a classification system for thinking about apps as learning environments for your students. Good food for thought as you consider the use of apps to support your students’ learning (and joy!) in science this year.

Apps for use in science instruction are often selected based upon four common criteria:

  • Compatibility with available hardware and operating system capabilities;
  • Cost and logistics of purchasing/ licensing;
  • Science content of the app; and
  • Recommended age/grade range of the app software.

Instructional apps create virtual learning environments for students. These virtual environments greatly impact the students’ learning experiences. Educators can make informed choices about apps based upon the types of learning experiences they offer students. In Table 1, you will find a simple classification tool describing four categories of apps. This tool does not account for every app out there, nor is it a hard and fast taxonomy. Instead, it offers ways of thinking about what various app features offer students and how these features affect your students’ learning experiences. Look carefully at the ways students access science content in each category.

App Features that Support Learning

There are great learning environments in apps today and they employ a wide range of features that maximize accessibility and active engagement for students. Here are ways that these four categories of apps can support your learners:

Reading content-heavy texts is among the least effective ways to learn and retain science content. If you must use content-heavy texts, choose e-Text apps that are designed to meet the needs of your wide range of readers including English learners and students with disabilities, as well as your above-grade, below-grade, and on-grade readers. High-quality e-Text apps offer leveled readings with consistent content, concepts, and vocabulary across levels; flexibility to level up/down as needed; in-app reading supports (e.g., highlighting, reading guides); multimedia resources; and built-in formative assessments. A great example of high-quality e-Texts is the Crack the Books series from Mobile Education Store LLC.

Whether quantitative or qualitative data, engaging with dataset apps is an excellent way for students to investigate patterns in natural phenomena and relationships between variables in the world around them. Be sure data is presented at a degree of abstraction accessible to your learners. Citizen science dataset apps are great for place-based learning and give students the opportunity to learn from and, in many cases, join in the work of professional scientists investigating all kinds of phenomena. Be mindful of student privacy in apps with log-ins. Overall, investigations using dataset apps are great tools for building student data literacy. Example: Wunderground from The Weather Company

Interactive model apps are magic! Variables in the model environments are often limited, which can allow scientific relationships to emerge more clearly than we may see in real-world experiments. For this reason, they are also great for building student fluency with crosscutting concepts. The ability to control variables beyond our real-world capabilities can afford students “behind-the-scenes” perspectives of complex systems which makes them great follow-ons to hands-on learning. Example: Free Rivers from World Wildlife Federation.

Interactive simulation apps are a great tool to use in conjunction with hands-on learning. They can also sometimes provide greater access to investigation resources than we have in our classrooms, lowering student-to-resource ratios and broadening the selection of experimentation resources. This can help all students, particularly your English learners and students with disabilities, become more familiar with variables, experiments, vocabulary, and concepts. Virtual experiments are often faster to set up than physical experiments, which can provide more opportunities for experimentation in the busy school day. Interactive simulation apps can also come in the form of virtual field trips, using 360-degree video technology. This kind of tech brings field trips to life and lets students explore. I particularly like this kind of interactive simulation because it builds background by giving students immersive experiences with places and phenomena that may be unfamiliar to them. Nico & Nor’s Coconut Star from First8Studios WGBH is a terrific example of an interactive simulation app.

MarcoPolo Ocean

What’s MarcoPolo Ocean all about?

MarcoPolo Ocean is a wonderful and free interactive model app from MarcoPolo Learning, Inc. (see Pacheco-Guffrey 2019 for review of MarcoPolo Weather). In this animated app, users explore organisms living in three ocean zones that approximate the sunlight zone (surface), twilight zone (middle), and midnight zone (deep). You can select organisms to add to the water column in each zone from a menu, which provides insight about the diversity and properties of marine life in the habitats of these ocean zones. Additionally, there are puzzles to assemble with accompanying narration that sheds light on the structures that make up different marine organisms and components of human-built marine innovations.

What’s good about MarcoPolo Ocean?

At first interaction, this app may seem overloaded with menu options and variables. But the folks at Marco Polo Learning, Inc. know young children and have crafted an app with options and variables that are manageable for your second graders. App features are colorful and fun as well as large and accessible to small fingers. Users can go at their own pace with all features in the app; I like that the environment does not feel pressured. Simplified representations of ocean environments enable users to focus on main themes of increasing depth, decreasing sunlight, and changes in the organisms who live in these different zones. Resources are available in consistent on-screen locations allowing learners to focus on the content, rather than operational logistics. After users complete each puzzle, the puzzle item (e.g., ship, killer whale) is added to the app environment. This app is accessible to your wide range of learners with no reliance upon written language and speaking, while limited in the app, is available in eight languages.

How do you use MarcoPolo Ocean?

While I am a big advocate of hands-on learning, the interactive learning in MarcoPolo Ocean could stand alone as a great media source for your students to use as they embark upon an evidence-based approach to learning about the diversity of life in different habitats (2-LS4-1). Here are ideas for engaging learners in Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science and engineering practices.

Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information: Performance expectations for this practice (see NGSS@NSTA) suggest that second graders should use media to determine patterns in and evidence about the natural world. Following lessons introducing land-based habitats, bring students together as a whole group to elicit their ideas about ocean habitats and diversity. Are all parts of the ocean the same? Do the same animals who live near the surface of the ocean also live deep down in the depths? Is the ocean one big habitat? Encourage them to use evidence from their prior lessons about habitats and diversity as they share.

Next, project the app on the class board/screen and take students on a brief tour of app features including the fish species menu (and scuba divers!) along with the puzzles at the top. Take them on a deep dive plunge down, down, down into the sea to show them the layout of the app. Then organize students into small groups to collect two pieces of evidence to help them answer a clear driving question, such as “Is the ocean one big habitat?” or “Do the same fish live everywhere in the sea?” Students can work in-app with one device/student pair or 1:1 with devices but be sure to keep them grouped with one or more partners for peer tech support and to talk together about their discoveries. Remind students of the driving question and encourage them to find two pieces of supporting evidence.

Finally, bring students back together to discuss their findings and organize their evidence to answer the driving question. Let them use the app to share their evidence. This fun and engaging virtual learning environment can serve as a data source moving forward.

Tech Overview: Marco Polo Ocean


This Tech



Marco Polo Ocean



Grade 2





Curricular resources




Biological Evolution: Unity and Diversity









Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information



Marco Polo Learning, Inc.



iOS and Android






1:1 devices in small group; whole group



Interactive model



8 languages


Teacher Support Required

Moderate support; less needed for guided inquiry


The Earth App

What’s The Earth from TinyBop all about?

The apps from TinyBop have been winning awards for years and the developers continue to knock it out of the ballpark. TinyBop’s The Earth app is a one-stop shop to get your fourth graders engaged in interactive model experiences exploring the Earth’s changing surface. This app targets concepts of weathering, erosion, fossils, landforms, and so much more. Soaring mountains crumble as rocks slide, frost wedges, and roots pry. Eon after eon, organisms become fossilized, preserving evidence of ancient environments. This is one cool app.

What’s good about The Earth app?

In The Earth, users enter an interactive cross-sectional model of Earth systems aligned with NGSS concepts for students in grades four and up. There is a lot to discover in this app. It is helpful that concepts are addressed in discreet interactive vignettes, and users are never more than one back arrow away from the main screen. An icon menu on the main screen facilitates navigation to vignettes. Interactives are easy to reset so students can experiment with them again and again, yielding outcomes rooted in accurate science and the laws of nature but with enough variety to keep things interesting. Users can control variables they would not be able to in real life, such as creating fossils and maturing rivers in mere seconds. Vocabulary tags are available in 48 languages and can be turned on/off by users. No language is needed to interact with this app, leveling the playing field for below-grade readers, students with reading disabilities, and English learners.

Tech Overview: The Earth


This Tech



The Earth



Grade 4



Earth and space science


Curricular resources

In-app/online handbook



Earth’s Place in the Universe

Earth Systems

Earth and Human Activity








Stability and change



Engaging in argument from evidence






iOS Mac OS with Apple M1 Chip, Android and Microsoft



$3.99 or part of app bundles; subscription for Android.

Free 7-day trial



Small groups with devices 1:1



Interactive model



48 languages


Teacher Support Required

Moderate to start; minimal once students get going


How can you use The Earth app?

Wherever you sequence surface processes and fossils in your fourth-grade year, The Earth app will engage your learners.

TinyBop offers a digital handbook, available in-app and on the website, with guidance on how to interact within many vignettes along with guiding questions for your students. Be sure to experiment with The Earth on your own in advance to get a handle on what users are being asked to do in each interactive experience. Make peace with the likelihood that your students’ curious minds and fast fingers will be able to figure out the nuances of this remarkable app faster than you will!

Here are ideas for engaging learners in NGSS Science and Engineering Practices.

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: The Earth is chock full of evidence about how the natural world works and provides many examples of stability and fast/slow changes within systems. Launch investigations with real-life images of the outcomes of a limited set of weathering and erosion processes. Choose from those explored in the app such as rockslides, river meanders with oxbow lakes, root pry, and so on. For each image, ask students to share their ideas about how these features were formed.

Next, move into the app. In small groups with devices 1:1, start students off with five or so minutes of free exploration. Small groups create opportunities for students to toss around ideas as they work in-app and enable students to address each other’s questions as they navigate in under-interpreted vignettes. This leaves you free to circulate and have discussions with students. Following a quick whole group review of navigation features, review the real-life photos with students and remind them of the inquiry question(s) driving the investigation. Provide specific directions about the vignettes you want students to visit and provide tips on accessing any tricky interactive features.

The Earth processes detailed in this app lend themselves to sketching. Let students collect evidence in different forms (e.g., writing and drawing). Cartoon strips are a great way to document dynamic processes, with relevant features labeled with vocabulary provided in-app. Note, The Earth app has sounds, some of which are important data sources for interactives. Use headphones or spacing to help students access the audio.

In small groups, have students revisit the driving question(s) and determine the evidence they will use to support their arguments. Finally bring students back together as a whole group to argue their ideas about the formations in the real-world images you shared at the start of the lesson. Let them use the app along with their sketches as evidence to support their arguments.

Table 1. Simple Classification of Four Types of Apps.

App Category

App Features

e-Text Apps

  • Content-heavy, nonfiction readings about the natural/human-built world.
  • Students obtain information through reading to access science content.

Dataset Apps

  • Real or fabricated set of quantitative or qualitative data points from the natural/human-built world.
  • Data can be presented in different formats such as tables, graphs, maps, and more.
  • Students answer questions with evidence they have collected, analyzed, and interpreted from datasets to access science content.

Interactive Model Apps

  • App environment and variables often adhere to natural laws and model natural/human-built/imagined worlds.
  • Users have control over variables beyond those they would normally be able to control in real life (e.g., weather).
  • Students manipulate model variables in the app environment to investigate questions about phenomena and analyze and interpret outcomes to access science content.

Interactive Simulation Apps

  • App environment and variables represent the natural/human-built world and natural laws are preserved. Variables in the app respond as they would in nature.
  • Users have control over variables they would normally have control over in the real world.
  • Users interact with variables to test outcomes.
  • Students manipulate real-world variables in the app environment to investigate questions about real-world phenomena and analyze and interpret findings to access science content.    

Online Resources

Crack the Books Series:

The Earth:

Free Rivers:

MarcoPolo Ocean:



Heather Pacheco-Guffrey ( is an associate professor and researcher of science / engineering methods and technology applications in STEM for elementary and early childhood teachers at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Massachusetts.


Pacheco-Guffrey, H.A. 2019. Tech Talk: UDL Strategies with Technology. Science and  Children 57 (2): 36–40.

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