iPad as a Tool for Science Education

by Drs. Jonathan Fingerut and Piotr Habdas

Much ado has been made recently regarding the iPad’s potential to revolutionize the realm of education through its use as a reader for e-textbooks. New software makes publishing your own textbooks as easy as making your PowerPoints, and a new marketplace for those textbooks has been created. Most importantly the price-point for those textbooks has been set an order-of-magnitude lower than most of our current texts. At $15 a piece, a student could recoup the cost of a new iPad in one semester. However, until the texts available for the iPad increase in number and quality, as much as many of us would like to save our students money, the use of the iPad in the science classroom remains limited in its scope.

There are, however, examples of how this simple, intuitive device can earn its keep until the eBook revolution occurs. In particular, boutique software that takes advantage of the iPad’s unique combination of power and intuitive input mode. In the course Biomechanics, offered jointly by the Biology and Physics Departments, as part of two different labs covering drag in fluid flow, students were given the opportunity to use a program called Windtunnel HD. This App visualizes and quantifies the flow of fluids over, around, and through objects that the students draw on the screen. This $6 download is the best fluid-dynamics software outside of expensive ($>1,000) mathematical modeling packages, and far and away the most user friendly. Instead of learning software syntax, coding rules, and complicated datasets, the students’ time can be spent manipulating the objects by dragging and rotating them with multi-touch motions, changing fluid properties using on-screen sliders and varying the data output with simple radio buttons. The students in the course were familiar with manipulating objects and settings this way, and were very engaged by the software.

Students had previously experimentally measured drag forces on objects dragged through oil with relatively inexpensive equipment (<$1000 per station). However, that approach, which is excellent for a number of pedagogical reasons, is limited in the situations it can replicate. This new software allowed students to concentrate on their predictions, testing and analyzing data without worrying about the limitations of the experimental setup. Further, its drawing features allowed students to rapidly design and test different object shapes to develop the most hydrodyanamically efficient form possible. While this could have been done empirically, the ability to try, modify and test multiple forms in a matter of minutes allowed students to be more creative before making their physical model.

This is just one small example of how the iPad can play a role in scientific education, but it is one that is uniquely suited to the interface the iPad provides. No other device combines such ease of use, input and processing power. It is likely, as more and more students have iPads, the development of such specialty software will become more financially attractive and move beyond the current hobbyist realm. One could foresee interactive software in molecular biology, mechanics, and any other field in which the easy manipulation of objects can tear down barriers to student learning and bring subjects into a medium through which they have become accustomed to interacting with their environment.

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Fig 1. Examples of the types of analysis and outputs available in Windtunnel HD to visualize flow fields, turbulence structures and lift forces (left to right respectively).

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