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Current Science Classroom

There’s an App for That

I remember when smartphones first began popping up in my classroom. This will be an unmitigated disaster, I thought; these things will only distract students from learning, which is, of course, coming from me, the teacher. There is no way I can compete with the limitless information stream that is the internet, nor with the instant connection with friends and peers. The only solution was to come down swiftly and decisively on those students who would transgress on my no phones policy. Woe unto thee who would sneak a text in my class, as a Friday afternoon detention was in your future.

Ah, the unbridled optimism of youth. Not only was such a rule impossible to enforce, but it didn’t teach students to manage their technology. Plus, how often did I look at my phone when I was in a staff meeting? And as I reflect on what it would be like to be back in the classroom, wouldn’t it be nice to, in effect, have a supercomputer in everyone’s pocket? No more scheduling time in the computer lab or running into issues with the laptops that don’t have Java updated? Today there are a plethora of apps that can both help students understand concepts and conduct experiments.

Physics Toolbox Sensor Suite offers a ton of data collection tools, including force, acceleration, sound and light intensity and frequency, an oscilloscope, temperature, and magnetic fields. Honestly, I wish this was around when I was still teaching because it would have made labs in physical science so much easier to do and probably cut my prep work in half. The app is free and available on both iOS and Android.

PhET, a favorite site of teachers everywhere, has developed an app for multiple platforms. It’s a great tool that democratizes learning rather than having students go through the rigamarole of logging into school computers that seem to always come with unforeseen complications. The app probably works better on a tablet, where kids have more surface area to manipulate the simulations but could work on a phone in a pinch. There is a $0.99 fee for purchase, another reason why it might be better for a classroom set of tablets, so make sure to communicate with parents if it’s something you want the students to use on their phones.

There are tons of apps for identifying plants and insects, but my favorite is iNaturalist. Birdlog is the official app of the Cornell Bird Lab and HerpMapper is great for identifying reptiles and amphibians. Each of these apps can help students document local ecosystems, participate in citizen science, and connect with a community of researchers.

Kids often miss out on the wonders of the night sky because they don’t know exactly what they are looking at. Check out Star Walk, another great app that provides detailed information on astronomical bodies. It’s linked to your location services so the app will “know” exactly how the sky above you looks. You likely will not be with the students when they are using it at night, but if you can give your kids a tutorial in class, they can put together an observation journal with a lot more accuracy.

There are also a ton of dissection apps, including Anatomy 4D. There’s also iCell, which provides a detailed and engaging tour of cellular life. The app is best used to help kids as they study rather than as a tool for exploration. Nothing beats looking at a cell under a microscope for yourself.

Periodic Table, which is updated each year, provides a ton of data on elements and chemicals for free. It’s a great way for kids to discover the basics of chemistry; I would recommend that you target their exploration as the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming.

And let us not forget Instagram, which most students already have on their phones. There are some wonderful science accounts they can follow that can stimulate their curiosity and be engaging hooks when introducing topics. Some of the best accounts are NASA Perseverance (@nasa_persevere), National Geographic (@natgeo), ASAP Science (@ASAPscience), and yes, my show, Science Around Cincy (@sciaroundcincy). There are also some very engaging science communicators out there who can show your students the variety of STEM careers that are available to them. It’s also a great way to highlight diversity in science and allow kids to see themselves as scientists. I like to follow are Corina Newsome (@hood__naturalist), Tanisha Williams (@t_marie_williams), Tyus Williams (@sciencewithtyus), Diana Cowern (@thephysicsgirl), Phil Torres (@phil_torres), The Black Botanists (@BlackBotanists), Kallie Moore (@fossil_librarian), to name a few. Most of these folks have a robust Twitter presence if that’s more your thing (which, if it is, I have to give a shout out to Lydia Jennings @1NativeSoilNerd who shares fascinating content on Earth Science and Indigenous environmental issues).

Finally, please remember that while it seems like everyone has a smartphone, not everyone actually does. Whether they’re Luddites or don’t have the access to the technology, have a plan to provide students without a smartphone a way to participate in a lesson or activity without feeling like they are being punished. After all, it’s likely not their choice if they get a phone. Be sure to offer the other way to access the apps, either through a laptop or tablet, or have one person in the group use their phone while others record and process experimental data.

However you choose to use smartphone apps in class, keep expectations high— just because students have their phones out doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to surf the web. Classroom culture and accountability are key. But take a lesson from my younger self: don’t make phones verboten. You’ll be depriving both the students and you of a powerful learning tool.

Chris Anderson (; @TheScienceJedi) is a science instructional coach for the Hamilton County ESC.

Teacher Preparation Teaching Strategies Technology High School

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