Mobile Computing

5 Ways to Extend Tablets Beyond the Screen

Here’s how creative educators are using hardware and software to build a bridge between the digital and physical worlds.

Tablets Teaser

Osmo’s Tangram game challenges students to arrange tangible puzzle pieces to match on-screen shapes.

As tablets move from novelty items to staples in the classroom, teachers are finding new ways to make them more than just another screen for students to look at. One way to make the devices more interactive and collaborative is to extend their reach by connecting them with external sensors or robots. According to Sam Patterson, a technology integration specialist at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School, a K-8 school in Palo Alto, CA, “What we are seeing is technology becoming more and more transparent.” Years ago, if you had a computer for every student in the class it would look like a computer lab. And then each student had a laptop, and it was a classroom full of screens, he noted. “Now students have the ability to connect to other things in the room, so that when we are collecting data we can do it directly and do observations,” he said. “It is amazing that in a seventh-grade science class, you can import data and it is in a spreadsheet already. You can start to work with that data without having to teach the students how to build a spreadsheet.”

Discovery Learning With Robots

Fourth-grade students at Gideon Hausner use their iPads to program robot balls called Spheros, which have several features that can be controlled through mobile apps. Operating the Spheros at any speed they like, the students play a bowling game, knocking over as many objects as they can. They then record their results on the iPad and are asked to determine the mean, median and mode of the results from the entire class.

Patterson said he recently had second-graders working with Sphero exploring inclined planes. “That sounds fancy, but really they were running robots around on ramps,” he said. But giving them an experimental protocol and asking them to stop and reflect on what they have noticed and share what they have learned helps them to draw some conclusions about ramp force and energy that are appropriate for a second-grade level. “So instead of information being delivered in a lecture,” Patterson added, “you can actually use the tablet and robot together to create a discovery-based learning experience.”

Connecting Digital and Real Objects

The potential for extending the reach of tablets begins on the first day of kindergarten, because most 5-year-olds show up for the first day of school very familiar with how an iPad works. Kristin Novara, a kindergarten teacher at Woodland Elementary School in Kingsford, MI, has recently begun experimenting with a learning toy called Tiggly, which is designed to combine the developmental benefits of physical play with the learning potential of digital tools. In a math cooking game, her students manipulate three-dimensional plastic counting pieces of various shapes and sizes that are powered by capacitive-touch technology. In the game “Tiggly Chef,” students respond to requests from the Chef of Tiggly Town to add certain numbers of objects to bowls in various combinations.

The learning game has an option where you can use the screen and don’t have to use three-dimensional counters, “But the kids would much rather use the counters,” Novara explained. “They can manipulate them and hold them in their hand and count pieces — and they put them down and the iPad app recognizes it. If it is wrong, they look through the other pieces to figure out which one actually goes with what they are looking for.”

Novara’s class has iPads at 10 different centers of activity around the room. “Any time we start on the centers activities, they all fight for Center No. 7, because that is the Tiggly Chef,” she said. “They all want to start there. They think they are playing a game, and yet they recall things they learned with the app.”

Collaborating on Tangible Activities

In second-grade classrooms, teachers are interested in having students combine tablets with three-dimensional objects to build spatial and motor as well as interpersonal skills. That is the goal of a product called Osmo, which uses a specially designed mirror placed over the camera of an iPad to translate students’ actions into the digital environment. Developed by former Google employee Pramod Sharma and his startup called Tangible Play, Osmo comes with three games: Tangram, which challenges students to arrange tangible puzzle pieces to match on-screen shapes; Newtown, which has students use objects around them to guide falling on-screen balls into targeted zones; and Words, a hangman-like game in which students toss down real-life letters to spell out on-screen hidden words.

Angela McDonald, a second-grade teacher at Union Valley Elementary School in Hutchinson, KS, recently started using Osmo with her students. “We have been working on shapes in math class, and Tangram works perfectly for studying shapes and properties in our math center,” she said. “I also have been using the Words game in reading centers to work on vocabulary.” And Newton definitely allows the students to do all kinds of spatial reasoning, she added. “They can drop a ball from the top of the screen and then set an object — such as a crayon, pencil or pipe cleaners — in front of it to guide it. It expands their thinking about how to use different objects. It really brings that to life.”

McDonald, who has six iPads for her 18 students, has access to four Osmo setups in her school. The students are already interested in working with the iPads, she said, but Osmo makes it seem even cooler to them. She also has noticed that sometimes students can become a little isolated working on an iPad by themselves. “This brings them together and gets communication going,” she said. “It is a very social activity. They have to work collaboratively.”

Collecting Data With Wireless Sensors

Another way to extend the reach of tablets is by connecting them to wireless sensors. Teachers and students at Lenox Elementary School in Hillsboro, OR, have been experimenting with Vernier’s Go Wireless temperature sensor. Sixth-grade teacher Dale Rosenthal described a science fair project in which students test which household materials — including wool, cotton and rayon — do the best job of insulating a flask of warm water. Students Will Richards and Peter Laycock said the wireless sensor helped them get more precise measurements than using a thermometer, and they liked actually watching the temperature loss rate on the screen of their iPad.

Teacher Laurie Loescher uses the temperature probes in her sixth-grade class, too. “We have a tank with 500 trout eggs hatched, so we use the temperature probe to graph the rate of chemical change. We also want to buy one of Vernier’s pH sensors” to investigate acids and bases and conduct water quality studies, she said.

Third-grade teacher Lisa Cairns uses the temperature sensors with the school’s garden club. “We planted tulip bulbs, and the students are marking the arrival of spring by observing bulbs and taking the temperature probes and iPads out into the garden to measure air and soil temperature,” she said. They are tracking temperatures and correlating them with when the tulips emerge. The probes are very rugged, she added. “We have 9-year-olds take iPads and probes outside to watch temperature change on the screen. They are fascinated by it. Some kids are enthralled with watching the temperature go up and down.”

Exploring the Natural World With a Tablet Full of Sensors

Nancy Ramig, a middle school science teacher at St. Michael School in Orland Park, IL, has used iPads and sensors in her class before. But last year, while attending the National Science Teachers Association conference in Boston, she was intrigued by a new product called Einstein that brings the sensors and tablet together. Einstein has the traditional features of an Android tablet, as well as a heart rate monitor, UV detector, humidity sensor, light sensor and temperature monitor. Other sensors can be connected as well. After experimenting with one for about a month, St. Michael’s purchased 10 Einstein tablets last October for use in its middle school science lab.

“Having it all brought together in one piece of hardware means the students can see the connection between the technology they are using and the content that they are studying right away,” Ramig said. For instance, if sixth-graders are studying heart rate, they can see how exercise affects their heart rate, and different ways that information can be graphed.”

Ramig is currently the only teacher at St. Michael using the Einsteins, but approximately 160 out of the school’s 600 students are using them regularly.

The activities and lab projects on the Einstein website are easy to integrate with her curriculum and textbooks, she added. “I have worked on the periodic table and acids and bases with eighth-graders, and the Einstein has acid/base indicators in labs already designed.” For instance, Einstein has an activity in which students perform an acid/base titration and measure the temperature change that accompanies the reaction.

Ramig said that seventh-graders studying Newton’s laws can use an accelerometer to measure the speed of a car going down a ramp. “They analyze how the changing height of the ramp will affect the speed of the car,” she said. “They can change different variables and see the impact. We talk about isolating variables. They are able to quickly change their experiments and choose another variable to study.”

Ramig’s suggestion for teachers new to using sensors is to start small. “Just use the sensors a few times in class to get used to them. Next year you will do more,” she said. “Then perhaps you will get more sensors and equipment and have a complete go-to package. A lot of technology comes and goes over time, but I see the use of sensors and tablets expanding. It’s an area that I think is going to explode.”

Sam Patterson, the technology integration specialist at Gideon Hausner, said that the key in any tech project is to keep the focus on a learning outcome or goal beyond the technology. For instance, first-graders learning about the planets might be asked to navigate a robot to the planets in order. “It used to be that the teacher had to take the content they wanted to deal with and get it on the computer desktop,” he said. “What is interesting with robots is you have to take the content you want to work with and put it on the floor.”

THE News Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

Terms and Privacy Policy consent

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.