Using iPads in the Classroom

Using iPads in the Classroom
Biology Apps for iPad

Image Courtesy: Aeternitas

If you’ve ever sat back and watched, young people have an insatiable urge to manipulate technology, particularly the handheld variety.  Instructional delivery can certainly be enhanced when we adapt content into a format that is native to the students, thereby feeding into their natural curiosities.  However, this is not always easy or practical.  Adopting new technologies in the classroom can be expensive and what’s cutting edge today can become quickly obsolete.

This year my building was fortunate enough to acquire an iPad cart.  When I first heard that these devices would become available for classroom use,  I became slightly obnoxious, pestering our technology director, letting him know of my desire to debut the iPads’, showcasing their capabilities during one of my lessons.

I quickly began scouring the web and the Apple App Store to find some ideas.  I began making a short list of some of the best free science apps but found the web content to be a little sparse.  One thing I didn’t want to do was let the students use Safari (the iPad’s pre-installed web browser) to Google answers to a worksheet.  This would essentially dumb down the iPad, making the experience seem like a trip to the computer lab.  And, let’s face it, desktops make better web browsers.  No, the iPad is not the best choice for surfing the web, lacking the ability to view any content built on Adobe Flash, and there’s certainly loads of free science animations that utilize flash.  The iPad’s true strengths center around its touchscreen capabilities.  Consequently, the most useful resources found were apps that were designed to utilize the iPad’s unique features.

Biology Apps for the iPad

If you’ve ever searched Apple’s App Store before then you probably know that many useful apps are free.  I found several that are interactive, entertaining, educational, and intuitive for students to use.  Let me share a few with you.

Gene Screen – Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
Apple App Store Description:

“Gene Screen is a fun way to learn how recessive genetic traits and diseases are inherited and how certain diseases are more prevalent in different populations. Gene Screen also provides information on some recessive genetic diseases and genetic screening programs.”

Image Courtesy: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

I have used this app with my class to reinforce concepts like dominance and recessiveness and to model probability through the use of Punnett squares. There is also great background information detailing the prevalence, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments, for several common recessive genetic diseases.  Students can also see maps that visualize the occurrence of several diseases by region.

I’ve included a worksheet I created for my students to use as they explored the app.
Genetics and DNA Review Worksheet

Click and Learn – Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Apple App Store Description:

“Interactively explore topics in biology with the Click and Learn app. Each module features supporting videos and animations (Internet connection required). Learn about topics in evolution, neurobiology, infectious diseases, bioinformatics, stem cells, RNA, obesity, cancer, and genomics.”

“Click and Learn”, more like “Swipe and Learn.”  A flick of the finger is all one needs to navigate this information rich app.  My AP Biology students were engaged in the app’s fluid style while learning about some cutting edges areas of research in biotechnology and genomics.

If your have never checked out the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website (, then you should.  They have loads of free resources for science teachers, including some top quality DVDs that they will ship you for free!  Be sure to check out the “BioInteractive” section of the site to browse their diverse content.  They even have teacher guides that correlate their resources to various topics, including the new AP Biology curriculum!

Here’s a worksheet I created as my AP Biology students used the app to review DNA and RNA.
DNA and RNA Review Worksheet (Advanced)


Mitosis – Inkling Systems, Inc.
Apple App Store Description:

“How do cells divide to grow new hair, repair your skin, or strengthen your bones? Mitosis walks you through the process of cell division, and explains everything that happens along the way. You’ll usher cells through mitosis with your fingers, learning about what happens in each phase of the process. You can also look at images of actual cells dividing under a microscope and see the actual structures you’ve studied.”

The focus of this app reveals itself through its simple title, Mitosis,  but despite the limited scope; the information provided has lots of detail.  Using the “Explore” feature, students are guided through the complete cell cycle.  Enhancements include an interactive element that requires the learner to manipulate the cell with their finger in order to move between stages.  Other features include a quiz, image bank, linked videos (YouTube based), and links to websites about mitosis.  One drawback is that the app is actually designed for the iPhone.  However, it can be enlarged to fill the screen of the iPad.


Bacterial ID Virtual Lab – Howard Hughes Medial Institute
Apple App Store Description:

“Learn about the science and techniques used to identify different types of bacteria based on their DNA sequences. Not long ago, DNA sequencing was a time-consuming, tedious process. With readily available commercial equipment and kits, it is now routine. The techniques used in this lab are applicable in a wide variety of settings, including scientific research and forensic labs.”

Here is another feature rich app from the folks at HHMI.  This highly detailed virtual lab will walk students through the process of extracting, purifying, amplifying, sequencing, and analyzing a DNA sample.  You can also find a browser based version this virtual lab over at the HHMI website, but the novelty of the touchscreen just seems to make this version more fun.


Hudson Alpha iCell – HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology
Apple App Store Description:

“iCell gives students, teachers, and anyone interested in biology a 3D view inside a cell. Included are examples of three types of cells: animal, plant, and bacteria. Learn about the various parts of the cell, which biologists, biochemists, and DNA researchers at the HudsonAlpha Institute study and use to advance the limits of biotechnology.” 

Pretty simple concept here.  Tap on an organelle, screen zooms on organelle, up pops a description of the organelle.  The descriptions are fairly straightforward and  the iPad version allows you to tweak the text level between basic, intermediate, and advanced.  This app could serve nicely as a review of basic cell structures.


Virtual Cell Animations – Virtual Cell Productions 

There is not much of a description in the app store so I will jump straight to my review.

If you’ve spent a lot of time searching for science animations like I have, then you’ve probably come across the Virtual Cell Animation Collection.  This app features two of the collections animations, one dealing with photosynthesis and the other dealing with the electron transport chain.  While the animations are nice (I prefer to watch them as a class on a bigger screen), I think the labeled diagrams are the real gem.  These are located in the “pictures” section of each module and allow students to digest these complicated topics at a slower pace.  Hopefully they’ll update this app soon to include more from the website.


Web-Based Uses for the iPads

The educational power of the iPad is not limited solely to the apps.  The following are a few select websites that I have found very useful.


Poll Everywhere

Image Courtesy: Poll Everywhere

Screen shot showing the results of the poll

Student feedback is time sensitive information.  The quicker teachers can gauge comprehension the better.  I’ve used exit slips and had students answer multiple choice questions by raising their hands, but the method I like the best is live polling.  You may be lucky enough to have a set of hand held clickers in your class or building, but with iPads you’ve got something just as good.


The website allows you to create questions and collect immediate participate feedback.  A free account from the site allows you to receive up to 40 responses.  You just have to reset the poll between classes.  There are also upgrades to the free account that allow for additional responses and extra features.    All the students have to do is point their browsers to and enter in the appropriate numeric response.  The results pop up on the screen immediately, which always seems to amaze the students (and myself).  That being said, I do usually hide the results until all have responded.  This helps to minimize students simply guessing the most popular response.

Image Courtesy: Poll Everywhere

Students enter their response on a simple screen like this one.

There are some apps that do not require you to download anything.  These applications, known as web apps, only require an internet connection.  When it comes to finding web apps for the iPads that focus on science, it’s slim pickings.  One exception is the content over at  Their collection of handy science apps provides good resource material for a multitude of science lessons.  Check them out.


Final Thoughts

I knew my students would be excited to use the iPads and I used this “wow” factor to my full advantage.  I also knew that if my students had idle hands and a gleaming new iPad in front of them, then it wouldn’t take long for them to reappropriate the devices for mindless entertainment.  To use such a powerful device in the classroom you must remove all ambiguity as to the parameters of its use.  Let the students natural curiosity power the lesson, but don’t let downtime minimize the impact of this teachable moment.


About the Author: Jeremy Conn holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and has  been teaching science in public schools since 2004.  He is the founder of Clear Biology. You can follow Jeremy by connecting to his Google+ profile.

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Jeremy Conn

Science Teacher and Founder of Clear Biology at Clear Biology
I hold a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and have been teaching science in public schools since 2004. I have a love for biology and instructional design. My mission is to share with other educators the best of what I know about teaching.

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  1. Amazing apps for Biology. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for distilling this and for providing an entry point into the vast resource pool! Totally agree with you about downtime being the issue, rather than technology and, by implication, that engaging lessons are a more effective solution to discipline issues than rules.


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