A new study by researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggests that tablet-computer-based simulation programs can significantly boost students’ grasp of difficult scientific concepts.
For the study, 152 students at Bedford High School in Bedford, Mass., used an iPad-based 3-D simulation program to learn about the solar system. Through an analysis of test results, the researchers found that the Bedford students made strong learning gains in comparison with students who had studied the solar system through more traditional methods (such as textbooks, drawings, and models). The students who used the iPads showed a conspicuously better grasp of astronomical scale, a topic that scientists say is frequently subject to misinterpretation and can be particularly difficult to teach.
According to the reseachers, the students’ learning gains came after as little as 20 minutes of using the iPad program. The effect of such programs, they believe, could be even greater with the addition of effective guided instruction (which was apparently not included in the study).
The study, which will be published next month in the journal Computers & Education, suggests that tablet-based programs could also help students better understand similarly challenging concepts of scale in biology, geology, chemistry, and physics.
The use of iPads as instructional tools has come under increased scrutiny lately, partly as a result of logistical and security problems in the Los Angeles school district’s high-profile effort to provide a comprehensive digital curriculum via the devices.
But Matthew Schneps, lead researcher for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center study, said that iPads can be particularly effective in the classroom if used to broaden students’ learning opportunities.
“Many educators are looking at the iPad as an inexpensive way to deliver content [and] to save money on textbooks, and a lot of apps are available that try to make learning into a kind of game,” he said (via National Geographic). “These uses are good. But what we were testing is, does the iPad actually allow you to simulate things that students couldn’t otherwise experience?”
Schneps is widely known for previous research investigating whether hand-held devices can make reading easier for people with dyslexia.
Photo: An image from the Hubble Space Telescope of two spiral galaxies that, drawn together by gravity, started to interact a few hundred million years ago. The Antennae Galaxies are the nearest and youngest examples of a pair of colliding galaxies.—Hubble Space Telescope Photo
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.