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Trouble Teaching Science? There's an App for That

iPad with SciRave game
SciRave on an iPad. (Image credit: Rice University – STEMscopes)

This Behind the Scenes article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Have you ever struggled mightily to teach a scientific concept to your child or students — convinced that your lesson would "click" more easily if only you could reinforce it with a catchy song or fun activity?

If so, you'll be happy to know that now there's an app for that: Called SciRave, this free app combines the power of music, the fun of tactile learning and the world of science in fast-paced, educational online activities that help teach basic scientific concepts and vocabulary to students K-12.

What is SciRave?

Demonstrating the principle that science lessons can and should be fun and relevant, SciRave is built around pop songs in various musical genres, including country, rock, rap and electronic. Written to inspire an interest in science, each SciRave song covers a different topic such as the parts of a cell, how rocks are created or how to read a map.

A young student smiles and laughs as she plays SciRave for the first time. (Image credit: Rice University – STEMscopes)

Students can sing along with on-screen lyrics, watch music videos, or create more of an immersion experience by dancing or playing a game. The game involves pressing buttons to move arrows on the screen to the beat of the music. A resulting score is based on how well the arrows follow the song's rhythm. (A pre-K version of SciRave featuring gestural music videos is currently in production.)

Availability of SciRave

SciRave may be downloaded to desktop computers or mobile devices via Google Play and the Apple Store. (The Apple mobile operating system (iOS) version of SciRave will soon be integrated with Apple's Game Center, enabling students to save their scores as they play through a song and compete against one another.) Any organization or individual — including schools, libraries, parents and students — may purchase SciRave song packs, choosing topics and grade levels that interest them (e.g., K-2 earth science or third to fifth grade life sciences).

SciRave is distributed by STEMscopes™ —  a Rice University comprehensive K-12 online science curriculum program aligned to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). TEKS define Texas's state standards for what students should know and be able to do.

Because SciRave addresses TEKS, it is ideal for classroom use. Originally introduced in 2010, SciRave is now one of the most popular elements of the STEMscopes curriculum and reaches over 1.3 million, or over one-third, of K-12 students in Texas.

Varied Uses of SciRave

Teachers have found varied and creative ways to use SciRave in the classroom. Some teachers introduce students to a new topic by assigning an appropriate SciRave song to learn during the week leading up to the new unit. Some teachers use SciRave to help students review for tests. And some connect dance pads to their computers to encourage students to dance while they learn.

Teachers frequently report that SciRave instantly "grabs" their students — compelling them to rock out, learn and enjoy science, even if they were once fearful or intimidated by it.

Intensely focused, this student racks up points playing SciRave. (Image credit: Rice University – STEMscopes)

Creation of SciRave

SciRave was developed with funding from the National Science Foundation by James Tour, a chemistry, mechanical engineering and computer science professor of Rice University. Tour's design for SciRave incorporated the ideas of several prominent education researchers — including those of Howard Gardner, an education researcher from Harvard University and the author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences.

Gardner's studies on multiple intelligences and education showed that offering students varied types of learning experiences can help students digest and retain information. SciRave also builds on the work of Mindy L. Kornhaber, who conducted a three-year study under Harvard University's Project Zero of the application of MI theory at 41 elementary schools. The study demonstrated that incorporating MI concepts into teaching increased the depth of learning and engagement of students.

By teaching through musical experiences and tactile experiences involving physical activities, SciRave exploits two intelligences frequently overlooked in curriculum development (musical and bodily/kinesthetic). Furthermore, by mixing song, dance and science, SciRave yields a big lesson about the potential synergy between these varied disciplines, and their ability to impart more knowledge together than any of them could alone.

Development of SciRave Songs and Videos

To develop SciRave songs, STEMscopes™used to use a three-step process. First, a cadre of teachers would create a scaffold for each song by fleshing out the big ideas, vocabulary and concepts that it should cover. Second, Jason Young, a composer and proprietor of Invisible Strings Audio and Music in Pflugerville, Texas, would develop the music and lyrics for the songs in English as well as in Spanish. Next, an accompanying music video would be developed.

But more recently STEMscopes™ has been working with Sisbro Studios of Portland, Oregon, to write and produce each song from scratch. Sisbro studies each TEKS as it is taught in STEMscopes™ curriculum and then creates lyrics and music to convey it. Then it makes a 3-D animated video to accompany each song.

Editor's Note: The researchers depicted in Behind the Scenes articles have been supported by the National Science Foundation, the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Behind the Scenes Archive.