April 3, 2012

From Plant to Planet

Free apps and online resources for science engagement and lifelong wonder

The effort to connect classroom learning experiences to those outside of school has gained steady attention in recent years. After school programs like those offered by the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, local zoos, and museums, can help parents and educators engage children in an extended learning process. Informal education highlights the connection between the experiences needed for school-based learning and the lifelong learning encouraged for all audiences, parents included.

Because much is made of U.S. competitiveness abroad in subjects like science and math, one area receiving considerable attention in informal education settings is science. Programs in Informal Science Education (ISE) can help increase student engagement, lead to better achievement, and foster college and career tracks in the field. The focus does make sense, as remaining competitive in science, technology, engineering, and math is critical to our future economy. While understanding related topics such as energy, the environment, or even health and medicine are critical markers of a scientifically literate community whose citizens are able to make informed decisions in the voting booth or even the checkout line.

Informal Ed Takes the App Plunge
Today, Informal Science Education has ventured online and into the world of app development. Free apps like Leafsnap, Color Uncovered, NASA’s Visualization Explorer, and Smithsonian Channel for iPad all bring rich science content to the iPad and iPhone and in many instances, enable an interactive experience for enthusiasts.

Leafsnap is a free electronic field guide developed by smart folks from Columbia University, the University of Maryland, and the Smithsonian Institution. The app identifies tree species from photographs of their leaves, helps you capture and catalogue your own collections, maps nearby species based on the contributions of users, and links to the Encyclopedia of Life (another great resource) for more information on a tree’s habitat and history.

The Exploratorium, the renowned San Francisco museum of science, art, and human perception, developed Color Uncovered (also free) to demonstrate the science and wonder behind color—in art, in physics, and in psychology. The beautiful app features fun illusions, articles, and other media that highlight color’s complexity, along with simple activities for at-home exploration.

Best known for its support of the space shuttle program, NASA is nonetheless responsible for a host of research focusing on issues that range from global climate change to the origin of gamma rays radiating from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Thanks to NASA’s number of satellites, spacecraft, and telescopes, curious stargazers can now use the free Visualization Explorer app to learn more about Earth’s changing climate, our solar system, and the forces still shaping our galaxy and the known universe. The app is filled with amazing images, video, audio, and other rich content that helps bring to life NASA’s latest discoveries.

The Smithsonian Channel for iPad is everything you expect it to be and more. The app features full video segments and excerpts from the Smithsonian catalogue, as well as a component that allows users to create their own channel—essentially a playlist based on the many subjects explored by Smithsonian media. As reviewers have pointed out, if there is a single drawback to the Smithsonian Channel for iPad it’s that the app requires an active Internet connection; the terrific content can’t be cached for access during the car ride or flight to visit the grandparents.

Engaging Web Resources
It’s not just in the app market that you’ll find compelling sources for Informal Science Education. Websites like We Choose the Moon and Expedition Titanic are two examples of how transformative events can take shape online, enabling deep engagement with a particular subject.

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum developed We Choose the Moon as an interactive exhibit of the historic moon landing. The site chronicles each stage of the mission with audio, photos, video footage, and more.

Expedition Titanic was put together as part of a 2010 effort to document the historic wreck. The expedition resulted in a number of new elements for use in preserving the Titanic, including a comprehensive survey of the 1912 wreck site produced with high-resolution sonar. The resulting 3D images of the bow and stern sections and the artifact debris field are part of the online site.

Kids are natural born scientists. They’re curious about the world around them, how things work and why. Fostering that interest with informal education resources, whether through museum and zoo visits, tours in local parks and preserves, or with technology as a guide can help kids (and parents) maintain a thirst for lifelong exploration and learning.

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