Learning Is Better With Tablets, Finds Harvard-Smithsonian Study

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The scale of the universe can be difficult to comprehend. Pretend you are going to make a scale model with a basketball representing the Earth and a tennis ball as the Moon. How far would you hold the tennis ball “Moon” from the basketball “Earth?” Most people would hold them at arm’s length from each other, but the answer may surprise you: at that scale the balls would need to be held almost 30 feet apart.

A study by Smithsonian researchers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows that students grasp the unimaginable emptiness of space more effectively when they use iPads to explore 3-D simulations of the universe, compared to traditional classroom instruction. It suggests that iPads (and other tablets) can improve student understanding of challenging scientific concepts like astronomical scale.

“These devices offer students opportunities to do things that are otherwise impossible in traditional classroom environments,” says study leader Matthew H. Schneps. “These devices let students manipulate virtual objects using natural hand gestures, and this appears to stimulate experiences that lead to stronger learning.”

Mr. Schneps and his colleagues looked at gains in learning among 152 high-school students who used iPads to explore simulated space, and compared them to 1,184 students who used more traditional instructional approaches. They found that while the traditional approaches produced no evident gain in understanding, the iPad classrooms showed strong gains.

Students similarly struggle with concepts of scale when learning ideas in biology, chemistry, physics, and geology, which suggests that iPad-based simulations also may be beneficial for teaching concepts in many other scientific fields beyond astronomy. Student understanding improved with as little as 20 minutes of iPad use.

Participants in the iPad study came from Bedford High School, in Bedford, Mass., one of a number of school systems around the country that made the decision to equip all students with iPad devices.

The research was spearheaded by the Laboratory for Visual Learning, a member of the Science Education Department at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory.

[Image courtesy: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics]