Learning pains while developing science education apps

An engineering design problem
We are a science education nonprofit and work with engineers and scientists to convey complex physics-based concepts to children through open-ended engineering design problems. We dove into the nascent field of science education apps because of the overwhelming evidence that mobile devices are going to become mainstream educational devices (see Horizon Report).

The field is new and exciting, but it is not easy to develop an engaging educational app that teaches the user something new each time. So we have had to repeatedly question why we are in this field and what unique perspective we can provide. After developing five apps we finally have a better understanding of what we can provide.

  • We have a good understanding of developing open-ended engineering design problems that draw children in and hook them as tinkerers. The virtual world presents a no-mess, quick-reward approach to tinkering. The user can rapidly create many prototypes (without having to get out of her chair), test them and leave no mess.
  • We have some experience explaining complex concepts simply to children.
  • We work primarily with upper elementary and middle school students and can expand the app market that targets that age range
  • Apps provide a cost-effective way in which we can increase our impact. We spend a huge amount of resources on our in-person programs and they only reach a few thousand children and parents each year. Through apps we can reach hundreds of thousands of children and provide them with meaningful experiences that help deepen their conceptual understanding of physics.

Our main learning objective therefore is to develop games that focus on conceptual learning through experience rather than factual learning, providing both a better game and a better learning experience. We only illustrate specific concepts and topics that lend themselves to the virtual world. For instance topics such as nanotechnology, planetary movement, bacterial locomotion, fluid dynamics or the engineering constraints of building a submarine naturally lend themselves to the virtual environment, where the user can zoom around molecules, see gravity fields and air and develop an intuition for how invisible forces work.

Lessons from each of our apps
We have developed five apps so far and are in the process of releasing five more this year. Each app has been a huge learning experience.



We created this app in partnership with Gamedesk. Our vision for this app was for it to be able to show air flow around a bird’s wing (to help teach how lift works) and then to enable the user to create their own bird and see why each was successful or unsuccessful because of the amount of lift generated on the wing. Due to time constraints, we cut out the latter part. The result was Aero which provides an insight into the air flow around a wing and the resultant lift forces. But there is no game element that: 1)would make the app fun; 2)encourage the user to transfer her learning. As a result many subtle aspects of lift generation are probably missed by the casual observer.

Build a Bird (iOS, Android)

We then worked with I-site to release a second app that would show the marvelous adaptations of birds to various environments and hopefully have a more engaging game play aspect. But again due to time constraints, we had to cut back on the game play. However the artwork in this app is stunning (created by an extremely talented science illustrator – Ioana Urma) and that goes a long way towards making this app notable. This app was featured by Apple and as a result got about 64000 downloads. Here are some blog posts about the app that give us hope that we are on the right track:



This is our most recent and most exciting app developed in partnership with Night and Day Studios! It is much more complex than the others and targets upper elementary and middle school students. It is based on the work of an amazing illustrator – John Kelly – in the book The Robot Zoo – a mechanical guide to the way animals work. The book is now sadly out of print. We decided to bring some of the animals in this book to life through an app. Our physicist on our team developed the story line: It is the grand opening of the Underwater Biobot Zoo – a collection of mechanical animal robots created by a scientist – when a catastrophe strikes: an earthquake damages the underwater museum and visitors get stuck. You happen to be trapped in the scientist’s lab. The user has to study the database of the scientist records and design an underwater rescue robot to save the visitors. So the app has three parts – the database, builder (where you choose the propulsion system, energy source, respiration, digestion and camouflage type) and the navigator (where you get to rescue the visitors stuck in a yellow submarine).
Due to financial constraints, we had to limit the scope of our vision and so the story really doesn’t get developed too well. In execution the learning pieces stand apart from the gaming experience. This is easy to see while playing the game, but was totally not apparent to us while we were developing the app.

Clean Marine

This was developed in partnership with Desktop Aero. The user has to design an underwater glider that can pick up trash and clean the bay. This app is targeted towards nerdy middle and high school students who spend their time tinkering and thinking about design problems. This group is probably very small! It has a lot of physics and engineering design, but the concepts are complex and need some more engaging game play to inspire the required persistence.

Current field of science education apps

According to the iLearn II report toddler apps are the most popular education apps in the Apple marketplace (58%), followed by apps for adults (40%). Elementary school apps are only 19% of the educational apps, followed by 18% of middle school apps. High school is the least popular age category (10%).
As a mother of a two year old I can make some surmises as to why toddler apps are so popular:

  • toddlers need a lot of attention and supervision and educational apps seems to be a “low-guilt” way of keeping them busy. And hopefully they are learning something!
  • it is relatively easy to develop an app to keep a toddler’s attention – put some bright cartoonish pictures of animals, add animal sounds, put in some letters, numbers and music and have a simple matching game to ride on top of it all – and you have a toddler app.

Currently science educational apps barely scratch the surface of what is possible with a smart-touch device. They are weak enhancements to the content in a book and are mostly focused on presenting factual information. The only exceptions are apps not specifically designed for educational purposes, but involve manipulating partially realistic models of physics in achieving non-educational goals. For example, Anodia incorporates gravity wells in a traditional block breaker game and Osmos uses the concepts of momentum and gravity in moving bubbles of water around. Even Angry Birds contains some useful simulations of projectile motion. Notice that these games do not present facts, but allows a user to gain an intuitive feel for how a complex system operates through direct experience. This is a guiding principle behind how we design engaging hand-on activities, and is also the component that makes any game, educational or otherwise, enjoyable (Gee, J.P., 2005).

Development challenges, lessons and next steps
Like any engineering design problem, we had to balance our wish list with time, funding and expertise constraints. Developing an engaging game that looks beautiful and supports learning requires a team that has the scientific, app development, teaching, aesthetic and UI design expertise.
The hardest piece for us has been to understand how to have both an engaging game and an educational tool. After five apps, we finally have an understanding of how we should go forward i.e develop games that focus on conceptual learning through experience rather than present factual learning in one module followed by the game play in another module.
We also need to build iteratively in smaller chunks of time and money. It is not wise to spend the entire budget on one version without extensive user feedback. We also need to limit ourselves to having one clear learning objective and an engaging game play aspect that keeps reinforcing it.

What lies ahead
We are currently working on:

  • a new version of Build a Bird where the user can actually “build a bird” and vary parameters such as wing span, weight, flight speed, beak type etc to suit a particular environment. Through the process the user will have an opportunity to transfer her learning to a design problem, thereby building a deeper understanding of the underlying concepts.
  • an app on high Reynolds number fluid flow in partnership with Robot Super Brain.
  • two apps that were conceptualized by high school students and are based on science exhibits at the New York Hall of Science. The goal of these apps is to deepen and enhance the learning experience of the visitors to the science center.

Our final frontiers are to:

  • address the App Gap – The iLearn II report states that 38% of low income parents dont know what an app is. We work primarily with low income communities who need a lot of support learning how to access the internet, using keyboards, smart phones etc. We plan on making these apps a regular part of our in-person programs and documenting the learning/training process as well as the impact to further inform the field.
  • research the long-term effect (if any) of these virtual learning experiences on the behavior and attitudes of users. Does tinkering in the virtual world translate into tinkering in the real world?

Regardless of all the learning pains, the science education app field is a very exciting one with much unexplored potential. We are very excited to collaborate with educators, scientists, developers and artists and develop powerful learning tools that unlock the wonders of our world for children. We welcome thoughts, comments and suggestions!

Each of these apps has been made possible by the generous support of the Office of Naval Research.
ReferencesGee. J. P. (2005). “Learning by Design: good video games as learning machines”. E-Learning, Volume 2 (Number 1), p. 5-16

Working in the Informal Science Education field

First off, here is my weekly report:

It is quite different from last week’s as our team is growing rapidly and we are working on developing an organic way of collaborating – that doesn’t shackle a team-member, but also lets me know who is working on what.
Also, we went to Monterey over the weekend (so the travel numbers are up!) to start our partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Hopkins Marine Station graduate students. We will be conducting a Family Science Course with the families at Pajaro Middle School in March – April.
I have the highest respect for informal science education institutions for the following reasons:

  1. They have to be good otherwise they wont survive in the wild! Unlike public school teachers, informal science educators have to be amazing otherwise the public just wont come back. In my limited experience (that doesn’t stop me from making generalizations) informal science educators far outperform the public school teachers in the ways they engage with the audience and make science exciting and inspiring. Check it out for yourself here in a video of Jeff Chambers (from the Monterey Bay Aquarium) teaching about marine habitats.
  2. I love the exploratory, free-wheeling, inquiry-based approach to informal science. I believe that is how you will get a child to be inspired to be a scientist, to strive hard, to be self-motivated and to reach for the stars – by showing them how science unlocks amazing wonders in the world, by showing them the wonderful rewards of being curious.
  3. Informal science institutions like the Exploratorium, Lawrence Hall of Science, Monterey Bay Aquarium have masterpieces of art and science that draw people in! In addition they use all the tricks of advertising, performance, theater, teaching and communication that keep the attention of the visitor.

We have tons to learn from them!