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Want Kids To Be More Interested In STEM Classes? There’s An App For That

The New York Hall of Science teams up with Local Projects to leverage the way kids naturally play to teach math and science concepts.

On a sweltering day in late July, a group of 9th and 10th graders gather around an iPad inside of the otherwise empty International School of Science in Queens. They’ve just completed an assignment on the quadratic equation, and a team of three is showing off their project: a funny video they animated of themselves playing volleyball, with the arc of the ball graphing out a parabola. There’s not a sheet of graph paper in sight.

The app they are using is called ChoreoGraph, and it’s part of a suite of apps collectively known as Noticing Tools, developed by the New York Hall of Science, that aim to leverage the way kids naturally play to teach math and science concepts. The goal is to solve one of the major issues facing educators today: getting more kids interested in STEM–science, technology, engineering and math–an area where the U.S. has consistently lagged behind other top countries.

For the past three years, NYSCI has been working with the media design firm Local Projects to create a social, engaging educational platform that meets the Common Core standards for middle school math and science. The kids using the app today are in one of the 50 classrooms across the country that have been testing the apps in beta for the past year.

“We originally thought that it was more about people getting a sense of these things, and they could do the hard core math elsewhere, but this is super surprising,” says Local Projects’ Jake Barton, as he watches the kids re-play the video for more excited onlookers. “They’re sitting there, and they’re basically using [the app] as the actual data set themselves, so they can do the project with the math.”

That the apps are designed to be an exploratory tool flexible enough for students and teachers to to use in unexpected ways is perhaps their greatest asset over the scores of other education technology products. Arriving at the open-based platform, however, was multi-year process that required several rounds of prototyping.

In 2011, NYSCI started the research and development for an app called Playground Physics (which Co.Design wrote about here) before bringing Local Projects on in 2012 and expanding to the four math-centric apps. Over the nearly two and a half years Local Projects and NYSCI have spent on research, design, and development, the apps have changed dramatically.

Celine Grouard for Fast Company

Not-So-Subtle Refinements

In the earliest version of the prototype, sensors were embedded into mats that kids would sit on as they went down the slide. Based on the different levels of friction, the sensors would calculate the amount of thermal and kinetic energy generated and and visualize it on the iPad. Proving to be too cumbersome a tool–and involving too much equipment–the designers moved to a more freeform system that captured movement through a camera.

In the second version of the prototype, kids attached an iPod to themselves or to a ball, and then used a separate iPad to film each other’s activity on the playground–running, jumping, sliding, or throwing the ball. By using sensor data from the iPod, the app would superimpose the force diagrams that make up the backbone of any classroom physics lesson, essentially visualizing the basic science at work.

“In theory, a lot of the thinking could actually be done by the computer for you. That’s what designers struggled with,” says Barton. “We’re used to designing frictionless interfaces that just sort of do things for you. So early on, especially with the sensors, it did all the work.”

Eventually, they decided to ditch the sensors all together. In the current version of Playground Physics, students still film their friends on the playground, but now they have to manually trace the arc of motion of the ball or the person, pinpointing moments and levels of velocity, acceleration, energy, and force. In that way, kids had to apply their knowledge of the subject and analyze the data themselves.

“Essentially, you’re putting the kids at the center of it because they could document their own experience,” says Barton. Using the prototype as a basis for the general platform, Local Projects and NYSCI applied the camera-based system to the apps that followed.

Next Steps

Local Projects and NYSCI don’t yet have the empirical data to validate their efforts. Over the next year, they will deploy a huge longitudinal study that will compare the standardized test scores of students who used the apps as learning tools and those that didn’t. Still, Barton says the anecdotal feedback they’ve received from teachers involved in the beta testing has been overwhelmingly positive.

The big question, of course, is whether this level of enthusiasm and engagement will translate to a lasting understanding of the concepts, and an improvement on their Common Core testing.

“In terms of will they be able to face their common core test and answer the five questions on quadratic equations, I wouldn’t be able to say 100% that they will be able to do it,” says Crisologo Avanzado, who gave the quadratic equation assignment to his summer school algebra class.

Yet, in terms of engagement, he says his students were interested soon as they started to use it. “When they see me giving it to another group they say “Oh, they’re using the iPad? What are they using the iPad for?’ And it motivates them to do the work faster,” he says. “Even though there’s no proof, the level of engagement is tremendous.”

Clarification: In an earlier version of the article we noted that Noticing Tools were developed by SciPlay, a research center run by New York Hall of Science. Only one of the 5 tools was technically developed under SciPlay, the rest were developed by NYSCI. The article has been updated.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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