When we peer out at the night sky on a clear, moonless night, we see thousands of individual stars — millions if you count galaxies mixed into the field of view. Look at your finger and you'll see the intricate swirls and folds that make up your fingerprint. In both cases, we only see the surface of vast processes that bend light and time, or those that create and sustain life. Our human senses aren’t sufficient to perceive the magnitude of the activity, nor the structure, that defines the universe.
Humanity has long sought to enhance its perceptions. And every time it has done so, our assumptions about the universe change. Galileo famously fashioned his own telescope to peer at the moving stars called “planets” and found, encircling Jupiter, its own set of satellites. With the telescope, Galileo was able to increase his own perceptive capability and see more detail. The earth’s place in the universe — something so certain that engineers built complex instruments to model its movement — fell in light of his new understanding.
We now know we circle a middle-of-the-road star on the outskirts of a common spiral galaxy. We do not know how unique earth’s chemistry and energy signatures are, but we do know that our sun isn’t the only star that sports a planetary system.
As our instruments gain sensitivity, they provide details that often undermine our assumptions about our bodies, the world, and the universe. We are in the midst of a knowledge revolution, not just because so much data arrives via the Internet, but because we receive data at ever increasing degrees of precision and detail about everything.
With iPads and iPhones in particular, students can dive into this data and learn more about the universe in an afternoon than any static encyclopedia or textbook ever offered their parents.
Discovering the Universe in the Classroom
With an iPad, however, students can experience the universe from a number of perspectives.
For a wide range of detailed data, consider the NASA Visualization Explorer (Free). Although NASA might be best known at the moment for landing robot rovers on Mars, it spends plenty of time examining the earth, the solar system, and beyond. NASA Visualization Explorer doesn't deliver fascinating static images, but rather movies based on data, which demonstrate processes that shape the earth, other planets, or the cosmos. One recent movie used several years of satellite data to illustrate where wild fires ignite and how they spread and retreat.
Another video demonstrates how urbanization has displaced Arizona agriculture, showing farmland becoming subsumed by streets and buildings. Any lesson plan exploring the impacts of urbanization, the future of agriculture, or the speed of change could use this video.
Several videos simulate everything from a black hole consuming a star to the sample collection and analysis on NASA’s Mars flag-rover, Curiosity.
Yes, these videos exist elsewhere, but the value of the app comes from the regular updates from NASA about new visualizations. Visualization stories, as they are called in the app, can be filtered by Earth, Planets, Moons, Sun, and Universe. Unfortunately, NASA doesn’t include metadata or search features, so you might have a hard time finding a visualization to meet your immediate needs (back to searching the Web for that). But this constant feed of new simulations and visualizations can act as a science conversation starter. Bring up the app on a weekly basis, and talk about what’s new. Unlike science textbooks, this is fresh material, just compiled and published, so your students can’t complain that they’ve seen it before.
If you want your students to see space science unfolding before them, the free NASA App HD includes near real-time feeds from various NASA missions as well as NASA TV feeds. NASA broadcasts include an array of topics ranging from the history of space flight, to live news conferences and launches.
This is the first of a three part series about using iOS devices to teach science.