10 iPad Apps for Teaching Kids About Science

Some apps can rocket kids far beyond Tuesday afternoon lab.
Some apps can rocket kids far beyond Tuesday afternoon lab.

Compared with mastering multiplication tables, struggling with Shakespeare or memorizing a slew of dates, science class has always been pretty lively. After all, where else could you play with volatile chemicals, fire, magnets and even the occasional dead frog (OK, so maybe that part wasn't "play" for everyone).

Now, thanks to some very smart people who paid attention during science class (and a few other periods), we have another way to study science: the iPad. In just a few short years, this ubiquitous tablet has proved its versatility and usefulness in all sorts of ways. Perhaps most valuable among these is education. Science apps written for the iPad let us explore space, look inside the human body, test out theories and yes, even dissect a frog (although with much less mess). Science itself has made educating people about it more fun and interactive than ever.

Here we present 10 iPad science apps that are so engaging and entertaining that kids won't even mind that they're learning while using them.

The Elements: A Visual Exploration

The elements in the periodic table make up everything we touch, eat and use every day. Yet in school, these elements are portrayed on a faded old chart that hangs in the front of the classroom.

This app gives the periodic table an astounding visual boost and makes learning about the ingredients of our world effortless and even addictive.

Open the app and instead of boring blocks with letters and numbers in them, you get an array of spinning objects that represent each element. Interested in bismuth? Touch the rotating crystal. Copper? Put your finger on the chain-link bracelet. The next screen adds extensive information about the element. You can drag your finger back and forth to change the direction and speed of the spinning item. Check out the element's properties, like melting and boiling points, density and atomic weight. Or plug right into the Wolfram Alpha computational engine to get nuggets of information on how the element acts.

Go to the next page and you get a clearly written entry on the element that talks about its practical purposes on the planet, along with more images that you can spin around with the swipe of a finger. What makes this app a true jaw-dropper is that one tap will turn a spinning image into a stereoscopic view. Then, with inexpensive glasses you can buy from the author's Web site, you can make the image literally pop out of the iPad in full 3-D glory. Sure beats a vinyl chart and wooden pointer!

Pocket Universe: Virtual Sky Astronomy
Kids get a look at cosmic wonders like nebulae -- cosmic clouds of gas and dust dancing in colorful formations.

This app is a window to the heavens -- literally.

Simply boot up it up, aim your iPad at the sky and, using its internal compass, it will tell you what constellations and stars you're looking at. You can also spin the sky to see what's beyond the horizon. Stars and planets display at the correct brightness for your location, and a simple slider lets you adjust ambient light levels to match those of your viewing location. In a city? Crank up the light, and you'll see only the brightest of stars on the screen. In a meadow in the mountains? Lower the light, and you get to see much more -- including an image of the Milky Way.

Other features include a red light mode that is easy on the eyes. A utility lets you search the app's database of all stars visible to the naked eye sorted by name, distance or magnitude. And you can browse the complete catalog of Messier and Caldwell deep sky objects (DSOs) that includes pictures of such things as bright star clusters, nebulae and galaxies far, far away.

Video Science

This app is a actually a collection of two- to three-minute videos from Dan Menelly, science education adviser to the Science House organization and NSF Einstein Fellow in CyberInfrastructure.

Launching the app presents you with a notebook-style interface that has a list of simple but compelling projects down the left side. Click on a project, and the video begins playing in an inset on the notebook page. Below the video is more information about the experiment and a list of supplies needed. Users can click the video to bring it to full-screen mode.

Most of the experiments can be conducted with cheap, easy-to-find materials, but if something is difficult to source, the app provides links to online vendors.

The tone of Video Science is definitely geared toward science teachers or parents, so if you're an adult, you can secretly study the videos, then wow youngsters with your ability to make a neon waterfall, recycled paper, a flying sleeping bag, slime or dozens of other projects.

The Ultimate Dinopedia

Kids and dinosaurs go together like hydrogen and oxygen (we're talking science here, right?). The Dinopedia app lets kids indulge their fascination by providing vividly colored illustrations and fascinating facts on more than 1,000 dinos.

This app has everything you'd expect from its producer, National Geographic. Kids simply swipe the screen to move from one dinosaur to the next. On each page, they see gorgeously rendered images of the "terrible lizards" in colorful landscapes.

Four clickable options appear at the bottom of the page: dino stats, a fun fact, more information about the picture and something called "The Story." A click on this rock-shaped button opens an informative paragraph with an accompanying dramatic voice track that is perfect for youngsters learning to read (it also helps anyone know how to say the sometimes tricky names of the big beasts).

The app also contains an interactive dinosaur family tree that shows the evolution of the giant creatures, as well as a series of short videos that provide realistic and dramatic computer-rendered glimpses into the lives of more than a dozen dinos.

3D Sun
When solar flares are aimed at the Earth, we can expect gremlins to interfere with satellites that keep us talking on our cell phones.

One of the most important lessons to teach any young would-be astronomer is never to look at the sun directly, right? Well, not so fast. This app makes it possible to do exactly that -- any time of the day or night, thanks to the STEREO set of satellites from NASA that orbit the sun and provide real-time, 3-D images of the sun.

Launching the app prompts a news feed that details sun-related news, such as dramatic solar flares or solar winds. A click takes you to either an expanded story with startling photography or to the spinning model of the sun itself. Once on the 3D sun page, the solar-curious can spin the sun around and even move it on its axis looking for solar phenomena. Buttons on the left allow you to change the temperature bands at which you can view the giant ball of fire and render the sun either blue, green, yellow or orange. Using the iPad's settings, the app can be configured to deliver alerts for extra-large solar flares, geomagnetic storms or auroras.

One of the most fascinating features of this app is the gallery of dramatic images and videos from NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Kids can observe the sun's phenomena in stunning, vivid color.

Moon Globe HD

From the sun, we head a little closer to home to the other heavenly body that most impacts our planet -- the moon.

This app allows you to make like an astronaut without ever leaving the ground. You can view the moon either as it appears from your location on Earth, or with a simple click, turn it into a sphere that lets you spin it to explore every nook and crater. Touching its surface brings up informational terrain tags.

With another click, the tags vanish and in their place appear links to the various spacecraft that have landed on the moon. Two-fingered swipes turn the moon, one-fingered swipes move the moon on the screen and the standard pinch motion zooms you right down onto the surface with astoundingly clear rendering that earns this app its HD title. In full zoom, it feels just like you're gliding over the stark landscape.

The night vision features turn the screen an eye-friendly red. There is also a compass overlay function. One of the most fun features of the app is that while you spin the moon, the Earth and sun appear in their correct positions in the distant sky. You have the perspective of being on the moon.

Frog Dissection

Perhaps more than any other science classroom activity, frog dissection is both dreaded and eagerly anticipated by thousands of students every year. On the one hand, curious budding biologists get their first look inside a living creature. On the other, some students question taking a life for information they could get in a textbook, while others just find the whole thing gross.

The frog dissection app should help win the day for those out to save the frogs. Launch the app, and an upside-down frog appears on a blue field. Users can then follow the step-by-step instructions (with voice-over) that help them insert pins where needed and use a marker, scissors, scalpel and forceps to remove the frog's skin. Once a student exposes the virtual organs, a simple click brings up a window that features a fully "spinnable" computer-generated image of the organ as well as an informative description.

The app also includes an interactive quiz, as well as more detailed information on the biology of the frog. Best of all, there's no formaldehyde smell!

Science360 for iPad

Starting the app presents you with a curved mosaic of images that you can navigate by dragging your finger. Click on an image, and it fills the screen, taking you to a story from one of the institutions supported by the National Science Foundation. Then you have the option of downloading an HD version of the image to your camera roll or sharing the story via social media.

Stories range from insect auditory systems to the science of football. The content in the app is definitely geared toward older children and adults, although the main screen is so much fun to navigate that even younger children will enjoy it.

Muscle System Pro II

At $20, this is the most expensive app in our lineup but, as you might expect from NOVA, the quality is impressive and there simply is no better app for looking inside the human body.

The app has appeal for everyone from a kid interested in what goes on inside the human body to someone seriously studying anatomy in college.

At the core of the app is a computer-generated figure of the human body with its skin removed (not as gruesome as it might sound). To begin exploring, just tap to zoom in to the various muscle groups. Tap on the scalpel, removing muscle fibers one by one, to expose the underlying muscles. You can spin and rotate all images for amazingly in-depth views.

Another click drops pins that can be tapped to bring up a window with a short description of the muscle. When you're done exploring, a quiz helps you evaluate how well you've learned your muscles.

Britannica Kids: Volcanoes

Remember when encyclopedias used to be old volumes that sat on your shelves? Not anymore. One of the world's most popular encyclopedia publishers has made its collection of knowledge come alive through interactive learning.

In this installment, Volcanoes, kids get to learn all about our hot bubbling Earth in a multitude of ways. Hyperlinks in the text immediately bring up definitions of new or tricky words. A click on the embedded graphics calls up a full-screen image or starts a related video.

But that's the stuff adults will care about. Kids will love the fun games the app comes with -- a memory match, a scratch-off guessing game, jigsaw puzzles and a high-speed quiz. They can brush off smoke to identify artifacts found in Pompeii. And they'll enjoy looking at the world map and figuring out (with a simple tap) how far away they are from the nearest volcano. Navigation is fun, too; a wheel at the bottom of the screen spins you to the app's various components.

Britannica has designed this app to appeal to kids from 8 to 12 years old, but we think it will interest anyone curious about volcanoes.


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More Great Links


  • 3D4 Medical. "Muscle System Pro II." (July 29) http://www.applications.3d4medical.com/muscle_pro.html
  • 3D4 Medical. "Skeletal System Pro II." (July 29) http://applications.3d4medical.com/skeletal_pro.php
  • Concentric Sky. "Britannica Kids: Volcanoes." (August 5, 2011) http://www.concentricsky.com/products/iphone/britannica-kids-volcanoes/
  • iTunes Preview. "Frog Dissection." (July 29) http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/frog-dissection/id377626675?mt=8#
  • National Science Foundation. "About the National Science Foundation." (July 29) http://www.nsf.gov/about/
  • National Science Foundation. "About Funding." (July 29) http://www.nsf.gov/funding/aboutfunding.jsp
  • National Science Foundation. "Active Funding Opportunities - Recently Announced." (July 29). http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_list.jsp?org=NSF&ord=rcnt
  • Save The Frogs. "Frog Dissections." (July 29) http://www.savethefrogs.com/actions/dissections/index.html