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Common questions about developing educational apps
This afternoon, I had an extremely pleasant Google hangout with Daniel Suo, and Professors Zhigang Suo and Teng Li . Our main focus was on brainstorming ideas on how to improve the user experience on iMechanica. After an hour or so our conversation drifted towards educational topics including novel ways of incorporating technology in STEM education.
I recently developed an educational app for the iPad , and during this conversation I was encouraged to make this post as a way of sharing my experience in developing an educational app. Without getting philosophical about it, let me just go straight to some of the most common questions I get about the app. For sure you will have many more questions, so please feel free to ask in the comments section below!
What is the app about?
It is an educational app in the area of structural mechanics. The app focuses on the mechanics of truss structures. There are two modes: a “freestyle” mode in which you can just design and test structures, and a “challenges” mode in which you have to overcome different challenges, of increasing complexity, while minimizing the weight of your structure. The whole idea of the app, in either mode, is to learn through trial and error.
What is different from other apps?
The mechanics and the numerics in the app are the real deal. My reasoning is the following: if a student is building intuition by watching simulations of different scenarios over and over again, we better make sure those simulations are as accurate as possible. The app handles geometric nonlinearities, the material response is elastic-perfect plastic, and failure could happen trough critical stretch under tension and buckling under compression. The app uses an explicit Newmark time integrator so simulations continue to run even after failure. In summary, it looks and feels like a game, but it is much more than that.
How long did it take to develop?
It is hard to put a time on it as it was really developed as a hobby during my free time. Sometimes I was coding while watching a movie, sometimes before going to bed. I would say it took roughly 4 months working exclusively on free spots during my weekends. That includes the design of the app, making all the bitmaps, coding, and submitting it to the app store. I must point out that I have some serious experience in developing commercial software including graphical user interfaces.
Why iPad and not Android?
There is a simple reason: one code works on all versions of iPad, including iPad 1, 2, 3, Retina, Air and Mini. Android is much more fragmented so it would require a lot of work in generating all bitmaps for all possible screen sizes. It is doable but not as a hobby carried out by a single individual. Android would be my next step though.
What is novel about tablets in education?
I have done several educational programs for PCs in the past. Clearly, educational programs are not a new idea. I also debug Truss Me on an emulator on my mac, so it runs on a computer. The bottom line is that the mouse kills all the fun! In my view, what really makes a tablet attractive for education is the intuitiveness provided by a touch interface. Simply put, interactions are much easier and fun when using a touch screen.
How can this app be used for education?
I think this kind of tools are a good suplement to traditional education. I still use the whiteboard for my lectures. At the same time, I try to make good use of technology. I think that by having the app, students could learn some concepts intuitively, on their own, while playing the challenges and trying to get maximum scores. Also, the freestyle mode would allow them to explore new concepts. In my view, learning by trial and error is the key. From a teacher’s perspective, the app makes it very easy to illustrate the behavior of a structure in real time. I use the app to illustrate concepts during my statics lectures. For example I have prepared a simple video on how to design the structure of a spacecraft for a safe landing:
I have developed this app as a way of reaching out to students of all ages and making them interested in mechanics. I also use the app to illustrate concepts during my lectures. I made this tool but I am still trying to figure out what is the best way to use it. I hope someone in iMechanica can bring new ideas to the table! I would be happy to answer any other questions you may have.