Weekend Wandering 8 – App Review: Earth Primer

EarthPrimerI’m not usually in the habit of reviewing apps, but when Earth Primer came along, I was excited enough by its prospects to give it a try. I must admit to hesitating at the $9.99 price tag, and was thinking I would not bother. [Aside: It’s a shame, really, that we’ve become so highly price-conscious of apps that cost more than a couple of bucks, but that’s the way apps have gone. In fact, I was recently burned after paying $12.99 for an Oxford Atlas that I learned wouldn’t work after upgrading to iOS 8 and that Oxford would not be updating the app – annoying to say the least!] So, in the interests of full-disclosure, I am reviewing a free copy of the app thanks to the author, Chaim Gingold.

Let me start off by saying this is one cool app. I can’t imagine how much I would have loved to “play” with this as a 9 to 11 year old. Over my 20+ years of teaching, I’ve always maintained that if anyone could build learning into a “video game” (then computer game, then app) then we would have the most knowledgeable students around – Earth Primer goes a long way towards fulfilling that notion.

Earth Primer has four “chapters” or areas of learning: 1. Interior, 2. Surface, 3. Water and 4. Biomes. Beginning at the “Core” we work our way out to the “Crust” with “Tectonic Collisions” and “Hotspots” as well. This is well-thought-out with a logical progression of understanding. The convection current animations in the Mantle are effective, so much much so, that I miss them in subsequent animations of “Subduction”, for example. However, beyond a quick mention, where’s the Seafloor Spreading? Rifts are there and a reference to the East African Rift, but it’s difficult to talk about tectonic processes without a page on mid-oceanic ridges and, for example, Iceland. Also, I would have liked to see a connection made between the location of earthquakes, volcanoes and plate margins. What a great animation opportunity!

Another error of omission is an “Atmosphere” component. While some of the atmosphere concepts are covered elsewhere, for example, “Evaporation” is under “Water”, and one can change the temperatures of terrains and add rainfall, there is no treatment of the Sun-Earth energy balance that drives many of Earth’s EarthPrimerGalciersurface processes (and is connected to climate change which is mentioned a few times), there is nothing about climate as a whole except being casually mentioned in the various “Biomes”.

I do like how each chapter is designed, however, around an overview illustration. As well, the Biomes are arranged on a grid from cold to hot and dry to wet – nicely done and great for making connections. But, I miss a map reference when place names are mentioned. This is particularly apparent in Biomes; it appears Biomes could use a bit more work in this area as well as the addition of some photographs, as the animations are poor; e.g. Taiga shows only patchy areas of coniferous forest rather than great swathes of forest as it characteristic of the biome.

The other point of note is that Earth Primer defaults to a strictly linear path through the app. At first, this confused and frustrated me, but then again, I’m not a gamer and this app is made for 9 to 11 year-olds who would be more inclined to follow a linear route and complete tasks to get to the next “level”. While a linear approach seems counter-intuitive to today’s ways of dynamic learning, I understand that knowledge builds on knowledge. If desired, full access to all areas can be toggled on in the iOS Settings screen.

EarthPrimer-SandboxThe interactivity of the animations is wonderful, however, and is Earth Primer’s greatest strength. Each terrain responds to the earth process you introduce: raise/lower bedrock, add/remove sediment, wind, rain, raise/lower sea levels, raise/lower temperature – the permutations and combinations are immeasurable!

One area to spend some time in is the Sandbox. You start by selecting a terrain model. From there, the sky is the limit as to what you do with it. Drop the temperature, add a glacier, raise the sea level, add sand and wind – with each change the animation responds accordingly based on the principles of earth science. As you reduce the temperature, for example, even the tree types change from Tropical Broadleaf, to Temperate Deciduous then to Boreal. What a great way to have students design a terrain then talk you through the changes they make and the results of those changes. It would be nice, though, to see some tectonic sandbox terrains and tools.

Overall, Earth Primer is an intriguing app. It offers an incredible number of interactive animations that explore a large gamut of earth science processes. Animated trees and rocks are simplified into geometric shapes, but are very effective in their presentation. What I find frustrating, though, is that, while the diversity of topics is there for the most part, the depth of presentation and knowledge is, at times, lacking I know, it’s for 9-11 year olds, but there is enough potential built into app for right up to high school.

Further to examples of even greater potential mentioned above, the app explores erosion, transportation and sedimentation but only mentions weathering. And, while river deltas come at the end of “Streams” (under “Surface, not “Water”), it ignores the fact that erosion, transportation and sedimentation have been presented and only gives a still satellite view of the Nile Delta. To me, it seems like an ideal place to use an interactive animation to allow users to create a delta, having it form and grow with the different grades of materials introduced previously in “Sediments” sorting themselves downslope.

Here are summaries of what I’ve found in these first few dips into the app.

Positives…

  • Interactive: it will get kids creating volcanoes and rift valleys, causing erosion with rainfall, etc. They will see the effects of warmer temperatures on glaciers, for example.
  • Animations and visuals are very well done adding to the interactive nature of the app. To be able to rotate and zoom visuals add more rain or higher temperatures, even build a glacier, are all truly amazing.
  • Sandbox: Using a variety of earth processes, although not complete, students can create terrains that they can then explain based on their learning.

Shortcomings…

  • Too shallow in places; e.g Students can create volcanoes, but there is no deeper level to learn more about types of volcanoes, features, location, etc.
  • Too simple: No mention of the Rock Cycle which is a great tie in with the “Interior”, nor climate, not sealer spreading. Mountain-building is limited to pushing up terrain with your finger in “Surface” rather than pushing plates together to cause folding, which could easily be done in “Interior” under “Continental Convergence”.
  • Use precise language in more places; e.g. Instead of “mountains might break down into sand”, the terms weathering and erosion should be introduced, perhaps with a glossary or simple a click on the word brings up a bubble with the definition.
  • Grammatical Errors or typos: e.g. “Volcanoes emit lava which cool [sic] and grow the hard shell of rock…”. Also, no mention is made of  the difference between lava and magma.
  • Earth Science Errors – I noticed some errors perhaps due to the app’s simplistic nature; e.g. at the San Andreas Fault, Earth Primer shows the North American plate moving southeast and the Pacific Plate moving northwest – this is only true in a broad, relative sense. What is actually happening is the North American Plate is moving west-southwest while the Pacific Plate is moving northwest but at a faster rate..
    Another example is with Groundwater: “If the [ground]water hits a dead end it will fill it up, creating a kind of underground lake.” It is simplistic learning like this that needs to be unlearned and re-learned correctly later on in school. It’s not a lake, but an aquifer: an underground layer of rock, sand  or soil saturated with water.

Next Steps:

  • While the soundtrack can be turned off under iOS > Settings, the sound effects cannot.
  • Add a Search function. If a student wants to go to “Erosion” they must guess that it’s under “Water > Streams”, yet erosion can also be the result of wind and glaciers and it is not found under “Sedimentation”.
  • Add map references to places named.
  • Add a slider to change the speed at which animations happen. Although they are meant to represent a thousand years per second, the clouds begin to look like pinballs bouncing around the animations.
  • Add more topics; e.g. some basic earth science topics such as the Rock Cycle and Flood Plains are not mentioned even though magma, lava and meanders are.
  • Add further, more in-depth learning. At $9.99, the price seems steep for this simple level of learning.

So, the bottom line question is this: Is Earth Primer worth the $9.99 being charged? While I applaud the work that has gone into this app, I feel there are too many missed opportunities and errors of omission to make it worth the full price; $3.99 perhaps, Even $4.99, but not $9.99. Earth Primer calls itself “A science book for playful people” – that I agree with! Does it replace a textbook for younger students? While some of the topics are covered at that age, most are not, so Earth Primer becomes a great bridge to further learning. Overwhelmingly, though, Earth Primer is certainly a great way to introduce kids to the dynamics of earth processes.

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