On a mission to discover astronomy apps, we uncovered a whole landscape of terrific productions. Here are a few of our favorites. We’ll be back with more in a future column.
Kids Discover has produced a number of apps based on their magazine series. Two of their recent offerings include the exemplary Galaxies (Free) and Space ($3.99; both Gr 5-9). The first focuses on the Milky Way and beyond, while the second covers our solar system.
Both productions do an excellent job of presenting information via a clear and engaging text and interactive features. In addition to navigation guides and visual indices, and a combination of pop-up texts and/or captions, notes on important figures, Q & A’s, and definitions, the apps include a range of easily accessed elements such as film clips, animations, narrated segments, and background sounds that beautifully illustrate and enhance the text. For example, the more interactive Galaxies includes a projection of the Milky Way that allows viewers to zero in on Earth’s location and view it from a variety of angles.
Along with some spectacular photography, the apps contain reproductions, artists’ renderings, and colorful cartoon drawings. The activities included at the end of the texts—a jigsaw puzzle, a connect-the-stars drawing feature, a memory game, and a quiz—are more appropriate for a younger audience, but these represent only a small portion of the otherwise stellar content. The apps don’t respond to zoom gestures, and there isn’t a strong text-to-speech feature, so they may have limited application for students with special needs. Overall, though, these are visually stunning, informative introductions to their subjects.–Lindsay Cesari, Baldwinsville School District, NY
Based on two popular BBC science series hosted by the renowned physicist, Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe (HarperCollins/BBC $5.99; Gr 9 Up, co-authored with Andrew Cohen ) immerses viewers in an extraordinary look at the science behind our solar system and universe. It contains content from both television series with video clips, animated images, and infographics, alongside an incredibly rich and deep text.
Opening instructions guide users on how to navigate the app’s text and image gallery. The content is organized under the two broad subject areas (space and the universe), and both of these sections contains a number of subheadings or chapters. Chapters begin with a video clip introduction by Cox. Discussions start small—for example, sub-atomic and atomic particles expand to conversations on galaxies and the universe. A search box linked to a detailed index will help viewers locate specific information.
Cox is a great guide and the two-and-a-half hours of film clips of him discussing a variety of topics bring viewers to new levels of understanding. For instance, in considering the more than 2000 objects that circle the Earth (“400 of which could be on a collision course” with our planet), the author demonstrates what this “congestion” looks like with a clip of the identified asteroids in motion, and later, onsite at the Barrington Crater in Arizona where some 50,000 years ago a 300,000-ton “lump of iron and nickel entered the Earth’s atmosphere” creating a huge crater 4000 feet in diameter.
Also included are more than 50 high-resolution 3D images that illuminate phenomena such as black holes and nebulae. These images, along with artists’ renderings, can be saved, tweeted, emailed, or posted to Facebook. To describe the content of this app as multi-layered hardly does it justice. It’s a course in itself, taught by an engaging instructor, who, while imparting his vast knowledge, instills his students with the awe and wonder appropriate to these otherworldly topics and scenes. A Spanish-language version of the app is available.
With chapter tabs and images running across the bottom of the screen, viewers may be inclined to explore Wonders in a sequential fashion. There’s something about Solar Walk by Vito Technology Inc. ($2.99; Gr 7 Up), on the other hand, that makes it a browser’s joy. It may be that the app places users smack in of the solar system (to a sound track), viewing the cosmos from a vantage point that is both unreal and a bit thrilling, or it could be that feeling of soaring through space that it allows. Either way, viewers will find themselves traveling vast distances across the solar system with abandon. Solar Walk has been around for a while, and through a few updates.
For each planet there are screens of general information; figures (distance from the Sun, equatorial radius, volume, length of day and year, etc.); notes and visuals on the internal structure (layer by layer); an atlas (for the mapped planets such as Venus and Mars); a did-you-know fact; and a row of images to tap and examine close-up.
The visuals are truly exciting. Celestial bodies and spacecraft can be rotated 360 degrees and/or enlarged for a closer look. But to view the Earth and Moon spinning around the Sun as the bulge of Earth’s oceans form (causing tidal ebb and flow), or to see how and when the Sun and Moon align to create an eclipse viewed from Earth, makes these phenomena understandable in a way that static images and screens of text cannot. Some of these animated graphics are narrated, and might be used as mini-lessons in the classroom.
Beyond the nine planets (Pluto is included, but identified as a dwarf planet) there are also specific sections on and images of “Dwarf planets and asteroids” (six detailed in all); “Comets” (Hale-Bopp, Borrelly, Halley’s Comet, and Ikeya-Zhang); “Stars” (50 discussed); and “Missions” (the first 3 of the 12 listed ask viewers if they would like to purchase the information, offering several amount options, including “free”). Visuals can be viewed as 2D or 3D (glasses required), and a TV mode is also available. Settings allow music and sounds to be switched on or off. There’s also the ability to tweet, email, gift, or print text and pictures, or share them on Facebook. For a glimpse at the spectacular content and technology, download the free lite version titled Solar Walk–Saturn. If this review doesn’t convince you to purchase the app, that trailer may.—Daryl Grabarek, School Library Journal