February 23, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Outstanding STEM Apps: Digital resources on life science, physical science, and earth and space sciences

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The renewed interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education in the United States began with the awareness that 21st-century employment opportunities in technology and science would continue to expand rapidly, outpacing our nation’s pool of trained workers. There was also the concern that the U.S. would lose whatever competitive edge it had in related global industries. Since then, STEM legislation has been introduced in Congress, and federal dollars have supported a range of education initiatives and programs to address the issue. The apps listed below are some of our STEM favorites, culled from SLJ’s column “Touch and Go.” They satisfy current academic interests in increasing the number of accessible science and digital resources. For additional titles, visit our dedicated app webpage (http://ow.ly/IixLa).

Begin building your collection by downloading Science 360 (National Science Foundation; iOS Free; Gr 6 Up), a free app covering a range of STEM topics, from origami-inspired inventions and monarch butterflies to cochlear implants and infectious diseases. Viewers choose their subjects from a wall populated with images, each one opening to a full-screen, high-definition photo accompanied by text or a short, engaging video on the topic. A well-executed app, updated weekly.

Life sciences

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-Bats-FurryFliersMary Kay Carson’s Bats! Furry Fliers of the Night (Bookerella/Story. iOS, $2.99; PreS-Gr 4) offers layers of information along with photographs, illustrations, maps, animated sequences, and sound effects, as it describes and depicts bat species, their anatomy, habits, and habitats. Not to be missed: a make-your-own bat screech and an opportunity to virtually steer this mammal’s flight through the night sky. Links to further study and conservation efforts are included.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-WondersofLifeIn Brian Cox’s Wonders of Life (HarperCollins/William Collins, iOS $4.99; Gr 4 Up), the renowned physicist and BBC host takes viewers around the world on an awe-inspiring tour of locations forbidding and exotic while delving into the origins and mysteries of life on Earth. The app’s illuminating text and commentary, 1,000-plus high-resolution photos, numerous 3-D images, and hours of video clips will leave viewers with a profound respect for the diverse life-forms found on our planet and inspire a desire to protect them.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-ParkerPenguinFranklin Frog (iOS, $4.99; Nook, $4.99) and Parker Penguin (iOS $4.99; both Nosy Crow, PreS-Gr 2), both by Barry and Emma Tranter, are interactive, circular stories that highlight the habits and life cycle of animals. Children follow the subject creatures, aiding them as they search for food, avoid predators, and, in the case of Franklin, locate a spot to hibernate. After the animals find mates and their offspring arrive, the stories begin anew, with attention focused on the newly hatched critters. Hot spots lead to more facts and definitions.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-HumanBodyAside from labels (available in a number of languages), there’s no text in Tinybop Inc.’s The Human Body ($2.99; K-Gr 5), an app that allows children to explore body systems through animated visuals that they set in motion. For example, a tap on a mosquito allows viewers to see how the body responds to an insect bite, while dragging a cookie into a figure’s mouth gets the digestive system going. Realistic sound effects (a heart beats as it pumps blood, stomach liquids gurgle, etc.) enhance this absorbing presentation. An accompanying handbook is available online.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-PlantsSophisticated design, detailed images, and discoveries waiting to be made are the hallmarks of Plants (Tinybop, Inc., iOS $2.99; PreS-Gr 5), an intriguing production that explores three biomes: forest, grassland, and desert (with more to come). There’s no text per se, but labels in 50-plus languages, sound effects, interactive opportunities, and “algorithmic animations [that] yield surprises in every play” provide children with a fascinating glimpse into the interconnections among the flora, fauna, and landscapes seen throughout the seasons.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-MarchoftheDinosaursThe animated March of the Dinosaurs (Touch Press, iOS $1.99; Gr 4-9) offers viewers a look at what two late-Cretaceous animals might have encountered as they struggled to survive an Arctic winter 70 million years ago. Their parallel, anthropomorphized histories are told through text, film clips (from the 2011 TV special Escape of the Dinosaurs), and 3-D images. “Fact files” along with sound effects and music extend this exhilarating experience.

No longer must fledgling birders juggle a field guide, a journal, and a pen on the trail. All they need is binoculars and the National Geographic Birds: Field Guide to North America (iOS $9.99; Gr 4 Up) and voilà, they’re ready to go. The app presents an overview of 995 species, with labeled color images, habitat and range maps, video clips, and options to create photo-enhanced lists. From the caterwauling of a pair of barred owls to the warble of a hermit thrush, the opportunity to listen to each creature’s sounds is truly something to sing about.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-OurAmazingWorldOWLSVibrant photos of an incredible variety of owls in their natural settings are featured in Wayne Lynch’s Our Amazing World: Owls (iOS $2.99). While the visuals are the strength of this app, the text and captions offer abundant details (available in multiple languages) on owls’ habits, habitats, diet, anatomy, and physical features. Our Amazing World: Penguins (iOS $2.99, both Matchbook Digital; Gr 4 Up), also by Lynch, presents similarly stunning photographic images and facts on that sea bird.

Physical sciences

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-Bobo-ExploresA magnetic, disco-dancing robotic host delivers information on light in all its forms in Bobo Explores Light (Game Collage, LLC, iOS $4.99; Gr 2-6). Twenty-one chapters cover topics from lasers to lightning and binoculars to bioluminescence through text and illuminating video clips. In addition, activities allow students to develop hands-on experience in understanding such concepts as refraction and reflection. A gyroscope and holograms are just two of the cool technologies incorporated into Bobo’s high-energy tutorial.

“Every element known to science,” from hydrogen (1) to ununoctium (118), is examined in Theodore Gray’s congenial guide to the Elements (Touch Press, $13.99; Gr 9 Up). The app begins with an introduction to the Periodic Table and the laws that govern it, followed by a closer look at each element. Information on the elements’ individual properties and the scientists they were named after, along with plentiful photos and 360-degree views of numerous artifacts, provide a captivating picture and make the “universal catalog of everything” tangible.

Highlighting holdings from Chicago’s Field Museum, Gems and Jewels (Touch Press, iOS $13.99; Gr 5 Up) offers dazzling, rotating views of priceless stones and pieces of jewelry that can be enlarged for closer inspection—perspectives unavailable even to museumgoers. Along with the images—from diamonds and rubies to coral and sapphires—is information on the stones’ history (social, political, and historical), geology, folklore, and cultural importance. Spacious and sparkling.

“Math is Beautiful,” states the introduction to Ian Stewart’s Incredible Numbers (Touch Press/Profile Books, iOS $9.99; Gr 7 Up), and the app delivers an “elegant proof” of that claim. From pi to polygons and factorials to infinity, this interactive exploration of mathematical concepts and their applications in nature, music, and cryptology (e.g., the Enigma Machine), will appeal to a range of users. A dictionary, brief bios, and puzzles to solve make this an essential resource for students of advanced mathematics.

Superb illustrations, clear diagrams, informative videos, and a lucid text explore the forms of Matter (Kids Discover, $3.99; Gr 5-8), their distinctive features, physical properties, and individual characteristics. The vivid visuals go a long way in helping to define terms, illuminate concepts, and illustrate how we experience and utilize matter in its various states in our daily lives—from the foods we eat to the technology we employ. Sound effects and bits of musical accompaniment add texture.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-MoleculesMolecules (Touch Press; $13.99; Gr 9 Up) is Theodore Gray’s first-person guide to natural and synthetic electrically charged particles, in all their complexity and beauty. In his discussions and explanations, Gray addresses both the science of molecular bonds and their relevance to such topics as vaccines, pain killers, and the ozone layer. Astonishing state-of-the- art simulations allow viewers to manipulate wiggling 3-D models of a range of molecules, demonstrating both their structural characteristics and flexibility.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-SimpleMachinesEmploying cartoon art, animations, video, and a straightforward text sprinkled with humorous asides, Simple Machines (Kids Discover; iOS $3.99; Gr 4-6) provides a basic introduction to levers and inclined planes—the “two families” of these mechanisms. Early history of some of the devices (pulleys, wheels, wedge, etc.) is included, as are the principles that govern them and a range of historical and modern-day inventions where they operate.

Earth and space sciences

Based on the popular BBC science series hosted by the renowned physicist, Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe (HarperCollins/BBC, iOS $5.99; Gr 9 Up) immerses viewers in a spectacular look at the mysteries of our solar system and beyond. Cox is an engaging guide who instills in his viewers an appropriate sense of awe regarding these otherworldly topics and scenes. Add to this an incredibly deep text, animated images, infographics, high-resolution 3-D images, and hours of video clips.

In Fragile Earth (HarperCollins/Aimer Media; $2.99; Gr 6 Up), 170 pairs of captioned, before-and-after photos, taken on the ground or by satellite, reveal the often devastating effects of hurricanes, tsunamis, and other natural phenomena on our vulnerable planet—as well as the harmful consequences of urbanization, mining, and global warming. In one horrifying sequence, 15 minutes separate two black-and-white photos taken before and after a violent dust storm engulfed a Kansas town. These and other images are enlightening, and frequently alarming.

Seven chapters offer an exploration of “essential principles” of Ocean Science (Ringier Studios, $2.99; Gr 9 Up): the forces that govern that watery world and the life-forms found within it. For each principle, explanations are offered in the form of text, multiple photos, and animated diagrams (often narrated), covering such topics as the ocean ecosystem and “water as provider.” Viewers can tour the control room of an underwater research vessel and explore ocean zones as they scroll down to the Mariana Trench, the deepest known point in the sea.

Our Amazing World: Antarctica (Matchbook Digital LLC, iOS $2.99; Gr 4 Up) highlights the natural beauty and wildlife of this mysterious continent. The gallery of stunning, captioned photographs by Wayne Lynch is accompanied by historical and scientific facts about the geography of the land and the habitats and behaviors of penguins, seals, petrels, terns, and other native animals. It’s essentially a digital coffee-table book, but a beautiful one that imparts reams of visual information.

Seat belts fastened? Edward Bell’s Journey to the Exoplanets (Farrar/Scientific American, iOS $9.99; Gr 7 Up) explores the little-known planets beyond our solar system. The app offers many options, including a regularly updated “Exoplanet Feed,” animated explanations of key concepts, and gyroscopic views of these far-flung orbs. Ron Miller’s spectacular images of alien landscapes make this a top-notch production.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-TrackingTrashBased on Loree Griffin Burns’s book of the same title and enhanced with videos, animations, and links to websites, Tracking Trash: Flotsam, Jetsam, and the Science of Ocean Motion (iBook $9.99; Gr 4-9) spotlights the efforts of Curt Ebbesmeyer and other scientists whose work studying ocean currents has included tracking the routes of “roughly 80,000 sneakers” and 28,800 plastic tub toys set adrift in the Pacific Ocean as a result of cargo spills. As one researcher observed, “There is a lot more trash out there than I expected.” Eye-opening.

Breathtaking visuals, a concise text, and a narrated tour of some of our nation’s most spectacular natural sites make Michael Collier’s Wonders of Geology (Mikaya Press/Tasa Graphic Arts, iOS $12.99; Gr 6 Up) a contender for the Eighth Wonder of the World. Close-up views, animated diagrams, and arrows that point to the geographic features under discussion transform basic science concepts into fascinating brain food. Throw in flawless navigation, and this production is a secondary student’s go-to text.

SLJ1503-STEMAPP-Hawking-SnapshotsUniverseThrough an intriguing introduction, interactive “experiments,” and colorful visuals, Stephen Hawking’s Snapshots of the Universe (Random, iOS, $4.99; Gr 5 -7) familiarizes students with some of the basic concepts underlying our current understanding of the cosmos. Various models of the universe as proposed from ancient times to the present day are briefly explained as are black holes, the relativity of time, and gravity and acceleration. A sure-to-please overview for all students, particularly those who benefit from hands-on learning. Sound effects and crisp visuals enhance the presentation.

For additional app reviews, visit our dedicated webpage.

Curriculum Connections

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This article was published in School Library Journal's March 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.