Using iPads to engage Year4 children in science


As some of you will be aware, I conducted my first ever piece of research last month, into the use of iPads to engage Year 4 children in scientific enquiry. After a couple of supportive and encouraging tweets, below is a summary of my research (the full report is available should you wish to read 7,500 words on it!). I have also approached the ASE's journal Primary Science about publishing my findings with them.

My research into the use of iPads to engage children in Key Stage 2 with scientific enquiry is a combination of both personal and professional interest. As a student teacher, I have closely followed the developments in technology through the media and have become increasingly aware of the role iPads can play within the education sector.

Furthermore, having developed a passion for science since beginning my initial teacher education, I have begun to question the use of new technology, such as the iPad in enhancing science teaching and learning. I believe that the increasing availability and use of the iPad needs careful consideration before being implemented into classrooms across the country. During my teaching placements, I have become aware of the lack of any new technology being used to enhance teaching and learning experiences. Consequently, I have begun to question why the iPad is not being fully embraced in the school context.

Since the introduction of the iPad in 2010, the development of mobile technology has been rapidly advancing. While the iPad has saturated the consumer market, growth in the science education sector has been trailing behind. Consequently, children are increasing their use of iPads in their home environment to consume information and play games. However, in schools, the current science national curriculum is out of date and provides no reference to mobile technology. Therefore, there has been little or no increase in the use of ICT to develop children’s scientific enquiry skills.

However, for teachers to feel confident in their use of the iPad to develop science teaching and learning there is a demand for more training and continuing professional development. In addition, there needs to be guidance from the senior leadership team and clear policy documentation from the government. Without this, teachers tend to focus on the app rather than the pedagogical impact the app may have on science teaching and learning. Crucially, with the correct app selected, and effective training into pedagogical implications, teachers will be able to engage children in scientific enquiry by providing them with apps that engage and motivate. Finally, careful selection of any app needs to support children to engage with higher-order processes such as analysing data collected during their scientific enquiry.

To conduct this research, I observed a Year 4 class using iPads in a science lesson, after the observation, semi-structured interviews were conducted with the children who used the iPads as well as their class teacher.

With all of the children involved in the research having access to technology at home (iPads and computers), there is an obvious demand for teachers to use iPads to engage children in teaching and learning. Teachers have a responsibility to use iPads and promote digital literacy. Although there is a conflict between what happens in practice, and the training provided, the class teacher provided the children opportunities to develop their digital literacy and allowed them autonomy over their learning. Consequently, the class teacher was able to adapt the iPad, through careful app selection, to suit the learning needs and pedagogical demands of the lesson, rather than adapting her teaching to suit the iPad. This is contrary to research, with common agreement that ICT is often taught out of context and the use of iPads dictates the learning and pedagogical styles. Therefore, the class teacher had a positive attitude to the use of iPads and acknowledged they have a role to play in children’s learning, both in scientific enquiry and the wider curriculum.

Since the introduction of the iPads into the school there has been a dramatic change in the guidance and leadership from the senior management team. Under the old leadership, no guidance or training was given on how to effectively implement the iPad. However, since the introduction of the new senior management, this has dramatically changed, with training being provided with a focus on pedagogy, as well as a clear focus on developing practice in Year 4. Due to the class teacher’s confidence and positive attitude towards using the iPad to enhance scientific learning, the children have been able to use the devices to suit their needs, and be fully engaged in their development of scientific enquiry skills.

During the interview with the class teacher, she identified that the school had organised training on the appropriate pedagogical use of iPads. Once the children were able to complete their investigation, and use the iPad and the app 'Explain Everything’ as intended, their engagement in the lesson was incredibly high, with all children staying on-task for the remainder of the lesson. Every child had autonomy over their learning and the ability to use the app to create their own presentation of the findings. Although the use of the iPad in the scientific enquiry lesson was a new concept and the children had used the iPad in Guided Reading, the high engagement level can be partly contributed to because of the novelty factor.


Fundamentally, the observed lesson engaged the children in scientific enquiry, and allowed them to engage in the process from conducting an investigation to presenting their results. In particular, Child M and Child K indicated they like using iPads in science because they can ‘do lots of work on it’. This is something highlighted by OFSTED (2011), BETCA, (2010) and NESTA (2005) as essential to increasing positive attitudes towards science learning, as well as engaging children in developing their scientific enquiry skills. Therefore, although high engagement levels can be partly attributed to the novelty factor of the iPad, the ability for the children to engage in the scientific enquiry process and their positive responses towards using iPads in science need to be acknowledged. The class teacher has provided the children with the opportunity to use the iPad to record and present findings in an innovative fashion. It is this engagement in the scientific process through innovative use of the iPad that fosters children’s autonomy to engage in further science learning (NESTA, 2005; Noss, 2012; Harlen, 2011).

In addition, the class teacher expressed her decision in choosing a content creation app because of its potential for children to explore and engage in using scientific language. She made particular reference to children with English as an additional language (EAL). Here, she emphasises that the use of ‘Explain Everything’ allows children with EAL to use the scientific language in context and be able to join ideas together. This supports the strategies suggested by the AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust (AZSTT) (n.d.) through allowing children to repeat and use the specific language through reinforcement. Furthermore, the use of the iPad to promote engagement with scientific language ensures EAL learners are using the language in an appropriate context (AZSTT, n.d.; Saine, 2012).

Crucially, from the observation, it is evident that without the use of the iPad, the opportunities for the children to record their voice and use the new scientific language would not have occurred. The children who were not using the iPad engaged with the language through writing the words ‘conductor’ and ‘insulator’ in their science books. There was no opportunity for them to say or repeat the specified vocabulary. Therefore, the use of the iPad promoted the use of scientific language in context and allowed for all children to engage in using it appropriately. Notably, group C were observed using a mini wipe-board to scribe their sentences before recording the audio. This therefore provided an opportunity to write and read specific scientific language in context.

The careful selection of ‘Explain Everything’ by the class teacher not only allowed the children to be engaged in their learning, but also provided an opportunity for scientific vocabulary to be used in context by the children. This opportunity allowed children with EAL to access new vocabulary and engage with the vocabulary in ways that would not have been possible in the absence of an iPad.

Indicative Bibliography

AstraZeneca Science Teaching Trust (AZSTT) (no date) English as an additional language in primary science: [Accessed 10th May 2013]

BECTA (2010) 21st century teacher: are you ready to meet the challenge?, Coventry: BECTA

Gove, M. (2012, 11th January) Michael Gove’s speech at the BETT Show 2013. Inside Government. Accessed: 13th May 2013 []

Harlen, W. (ed) (2011) ASE Guide to Primary Science Education, Hatfield: The Association of Science Education

Looi, C. Zhang, B., Chen, W., Seow, P., Chia, G., Norris, C. and Soloway, E. (2011) 1:1 mobile inquiry learning experience for primary science students: a study of learning effectiveness, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 269-287

Noss, R. (2012) System Upgrade - Realising the Vision for UK education: A report from the Economical & Social Research Council (ESRC) and Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), London: Technology Enhanced Learning Research

Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) (2011) Successful science, Manchester: OFSTED

Sharpe, R., Beetham, H. & De Freitas, S. (2010) Rethinking Learning for a Digital Age: How Learners are Shaping their own Experiences, London: Routledge

The Royal Society (2012) Shut down or restart? The way forward for computing in UK schools: Executive Summary, London: The Royal Society