Learning About The Galaxy Through An Apple
December 6, 2013

Learning About The Galaxy Through An Apple

When I was in grade school and we were learning about the planets and outer space, my teacher look the class into the old gymnasium – the one not used for anything more than recess or for the high school kids to hang out in during lunch – and brought out a bunch of different sized balls. Using these, our teacher tried to instill on us just how big our solar system was by showing us a rough scale of size. Using a basketball and a tennis ball, she showed us how far the Earth was from the moon by having one of us hold the basketball – Earth – and another of us hold the tennis ball – the moon – and had us stand pretty far apart. Then, using that same basketball and marbles, she showed us how far some of the different planets were from the sun, having someone hold the “sun” and someone else hold “Earth” and having them stand on opposite corners of the gym. She went on to say that even these were not altogether accurate, but the exercise did help to give us a basic idea of scale. What is more important is that it gave us something to do other than sit in a classroom and read about just how big it is. Reading about something being big and seeing it are always two completely different things.

Recently, a new study by the Smithsonian researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the same group that brought us those incredible images of ISON just a few weeks ago, has suggested that the use of iPads and other tablets could greatly help students understand the sheer size and scope of the universe through three dimensional simulations. According to the study leader, Matthew H. Schneps, “These devices let students manipulate virtual objects using natural hand gestures, and this appears to stimulate experiences that lead to stronger learning.” In the study, Schneps and his team examined the amount students seemed to retain, how much they learned, when comparing 152 students who were allowed to use iPads to explore a simulation of the solar system with 1,184 students who were taught the more traditional way, by using illustrations and very rough scale models. The researchers focused their questions that were often dominated by misconceptions regarding the scale of space, and that were difficult to correct through traditional learning. What they found is that while traditional approaches to learning had no great gain in student understanding of the material, the iPad using classes showed very strong improvements of their understanding.

Participants in this study came from Bedford High School in Bedford, Massachusetts which is one of a number of schools around the country that have made the decision to provide all students with iPads. According to Principal Henry Turner, “Since we began using iPads, we have seen substantial gains in learning, especially in subjects like math and science.” Concepts like comparative scale are not just based in astronomy. Similar practices can help students in a variety of subjects, ranging from chemistry, physics, biology, and geology. Overall, the introduction of technology into the classroom has shown to have highly positive gains in terms of helping students learn.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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