Science in Mind

Using iPads to understand science at Bedford High School

Medfield-10/25/13-- Students in teacher Cynthia McClellan's 8th grade social science and history class use their iPads during class.Boston Globe Staff photo by John Tlumacki(west)
Students at the Blake Middle School in Medfield use their iPads during class.File photo/2013/John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Technology is often seen as a powerful way to improve education, but just handing out the latest gadgets won’t by itself improve how children learn. That’s something educators and administrators are wrestling with, as schools experiment with rolling out iPads and tablets. There’s little to guide teachers to know which kinds of technology work best, and in what context they’re better than more conventional means of teaching.

Enter Matthew Schneps, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who studies dyslexia and has long been intrigued by technology’s potential to help people with this learning disability, who often struggle in an education system dominated by the textbook. The discoveries he has been making about how people with dyslexia analyze blurry images and read faster on hand-held devices led him to wonder about what kinds of non-text-based learning might be done better on an iPad than by reading paragraphs.

Many times, he says, when schools think about buying tablets or e-readers, they think about justifying the cost because of the textbooks they will no longer have to buy. The devices are thought of first as a different way to deliver text.

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Perhaps, he thought, the touchscreen ability to pinch and squeeze and navigate through a model system on an iPad could be a better way to learn about concepts such as the scale of the solar system—something students are notoriously bad at comprehending. The iPad might provide a different and more accurate way to learn about complicated scientific topics that students often have miconceptions about, which often range to time and length scales that are far outside the typical window of human experience.

In a study at Bedford High School, he found that a simple iPad lesson resulted in improvement on students’ ability to answer questions about the solar system —such as the relative size and distance between the planets. The study was published in the journal Computers & Education.

He thinks this kind of learning could be used in all kinds of situations, often found in the sciences, where people need to think spatially, and where verbal descriptions may be aided by 3-D exploration.

Schneps and colleagues didn’t directly compare the students’ performance after the iPad lesson to those given a conventional lesson about astronomy, so he can’t say the iPad is superior. But previous research has shown that high school students did not get better at understanding concepts in a test laced with common misconceptions over an entire astronomy course, whereas students made measurable gains after a single, 20-minute iPad lesson in the new study.

Sometimes, Schneps says, the abstracted ways that diagrams appear in textbooks can contribute to the misconception. For example, he said, many people believe the earth is in an elliptical orbit around the sun—a belief that arises in part because textbooks show a side view of the orbit. That may lead them to make the common mistake of believing that winter occurs when the earth is further away in its orbit from the sun—and not due to the sun’s lower position in the sky. Technology alone can’t correct that misconceptions—indeed, students continued to get that question wrong in his study, even after the iPad lesson.

Schneps thinks teaching needs to use both approaches:

“It’s a little bit like the difference between reading about the Taj Mahal and visiting the Taj Mahal,” Schneps said. “You have to read about it so you know what it is and why it was built and this stuff you can’t tell just by looking at it. But if you never visited it, you’re going to miss something—there’s all this intangible knowledge you’re going to miss.”

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