App Seeks to Take Complexity Out of Teaching Physics

By Gina Cairney — August 12, 2014 3 min read
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By guest blogger Gina Cairney

The push to align curricula with 21st century learning, and prepare students for 21st century jobs has prompted what appears to be a huge push for school districts to heavily invest in digital classroom technology.

Past surveys reveal that some teachers aren’t comfortable with technology, while others are hungry for more, raising questions not only about ed tech’s reliability, but educators’ abilities in using the tools effectively, and making it engaging for students.

One organization is attempting to address those concerns of ed-tech uncertainty with an app that developers hope educators will find easy to use, and will engage students and help them master complex physics concepts.

The unofficially-named SciPlay app is a collaborative project between the New York City-based media design firm Local Projects, and SciPlay, a research center launched by the New York Hall of Science in 2010.

After the app is downloaded onto an iPad, students can then record themselves doing an activity, like throwing a ball to a friend, or jumping, according to the Hall of Science’s website. When students play the recorded segment back, they can use the various tools within the app to trace their motion, and use graphs and other data forms to calculate measurements typically associated with physics.

Some New York City schools got an early look at the app, testing the tool on a pre-loaded tablet with their middle school students, according to Harouna Ba, the director of SciPlay.

The finalized version won’t be available until September, said Ba, and it eventually will be available to all grade levels, on devices other than the iPad.

The magazine Fast Company has an extensive piece about the app, which Jake Barton, a designer with Local Projects, calls a “digital noticing tool.”

Making Physics Fun

Ba hopes the app will make physics, a notoriously difficult subject to teach, more accessible to students of all ages by deeply connecting scientific concepts to their physical, natural experiences (like jumping, walking, and throwing a ball).

“Kids might understand what movement is, but they don’t understand the concepts,” said Ba.

Rather than having students passively sit at their desks, the app is designed to get them actively involved in the learning process. (Could this be an approach that schools cutting out recess times from their schedules might consider?)

But what about teachers who are unsure or apprehensive about using digital tools in their classroom?

Ba and Dan Wempa, head of external affairs for the Hall of Science, expressed confidence in the usability of the app by teachers who consider themselves not very tech-savvy.

“The tools aren’t threatening,” said Ba, and the process “doesn’t require heavy lifting, [or the] whole classroom to be changed.”

Unlike an interactive whiteboard, which Ba described as an “invasive tool,” the SciPlay app is designed to fit nicely in, and out of the classroom. It’s “simple to use and we don’t anticipate any major issues that other classroom technology has experienced,” Wempa said.

The app will include a lesson guide, a “teacher hub,” and, according to Wempa, professional development opportunities that can be accessed online, but the app can be used by itself.

“The goal is for the app to be used by anyone,” Ba said, which means making the tool accessible not only inside the classroom, but outside as well.

This expanded access would allow teachers who don’t have the app in-class to encourage students to access and explore the app on their own.

“If you can play Angry Birds, you can handle this,” said Wempa.

But whether the SciPlay app succeeds in the school market or not will depend on if it can deliver on the claims made by its creators: that it will be easy to use, and fun for students.

Images courtesy of Local Projects.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.

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