As part of our ongoing series of interviews with people making a difference in the education and technology fields, we spoke to Theodore Gray, award-winning software developer, author and co-founder of Touch Press about The Elements: A Visual Exploration app and educational apps in general.
Touch Press specializes in digital publishing and aims to create a new kind of book that makes use of emerging consumer platforms such as the iPad, as well as the latest computation capabilities and high-performance visual media.
SMATOOS: What inspired you to come up with the idea for creating The Elements?
Theodore Gray (TG): Originally I just wanted a table for my office. Because of a confusing sentence in Oliver Sacks’ excellent book Uncle Tungsten, I got the idea to build a periodic table table, that is to say a table in the shape of the periodic table. Then I decided I should fill it with samples of the actual elements. Then I thought I should take pictures of each sample, so I wouldn’t forget what each one was. It was kind of a slippery slope from there to publishing a poster and then a book about the elements. When the iPad was announced, I was sitting on all the raw material I needed to create the app, and 60 days to do it in before the device would ship. Seemed like the right thing to do.
SMATOOS: What’s the most important thing to remember when developing an app designed to get kids interested in chemistry and nature? What’s the most challenging part?
TG: The most important thing when writing for children is not to write like you’re writing for children. They hate that. I didn’t write The Elements with kids in mind, I wrote about what I thought was interesting, in a way that I would want to read about it. If a lot of kids think that’s interesting (and they do), then that’s great, but as far as I’m concerned I’m equally happy to have kids or adults reading the book.
SMATOOS: The graphics are excellent. How did you go about deciding what to include (and not include) in your representations of various elements?
TG: I have about 2500 samples of the elements and their applications in my office, of which about 600 are in the book. I tried to pick the ones that are both interesting because of what they are, and pretty to look at.
SMATOOS: This is an educational app. Did you have any teachers or education specialists contributing to the development of the app?
TG: This is not a textbook, it’s an interesting book. It’s more like the kind of book kids find on their own in the library and read because they want to, not because a teacher told them they should. I pay no attention to what “education specialists” say, I write about interesting things for people who are curious about the world and want to learn more. My own experience in school was that the more “educational” or “grade appropriate” a book was, the less I could learn from it: Reading above your reading level is the best thing you can do as a student.
SMATOOS: What is it about The Elements that will appeal to students?
TG: The fact that I talk about all kinds of stuff, and about why I find these things interesting. Most books about the elements boil down to long laundry lists of all the different ways each element can be used. I think that’s boring, so instead I tell stories about what’s particularly amusing or important about each element, even the ones everyone thinks are useless. Also, the rotatable objects are fun, you get to see them from all sides, even the ugly side.
SMATOOS: Are there any developers out there that you think are producing really innovative education apps?
TG: Every kid should read The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. It’s a great book, and a fine example of ebook-making. Al Gore’s ebook about the environment is pretty interesting too. As for apps rather than ebooks, I don’t really follow that world very much. Wolfram|Alpha is producing a lot of “Course Apps”, which provide deep, targeted information and computation about specific topics, and if you count those as educational apps then they are certainly interesting and innovative. Unfortunately a lot of apps, educational and otherwise, are trashy, which is a shame, but inevitable as long as people expect to pay no more than 99 cents.
SMATOOS: What other apps are you working on?
TG: We just released one called Skulls by Simon Winchester. It’s a bit like The Elements in that it’s about a collection of skulls, but it’s much more than that, it’s full of stories that will show you why you really are interested in skulls, even if you didn’t realize it. Simon Winchester is a well-known author, a very fine writer, and we think it’s crucial to have a good author if you want to create a good book.
SMATOOS:What advice would you give to other developers who are thinking about creating educational apps?
TG: Apps that try to force kids to go through some “educational” hoops to reach a reward, like playing a game, have been proven to reduce achievement. Unfortunately most “educational apps” fall into one category like that or another: Things that causes students to learn less and care less. Doing it right, which means deep content, interesting material, or simulation engines that inspire creativity and real learning, are difficult and expensive to produce, and worse, they typically require support from a skilled teacher, of which there are precious few available.
My advice to developers would be to stay equally far away from video game models and educational experts. Find a good teacher, one who actually spends time with students and is good at getting them to put in the hard work that is required for real learning. Ask them what tools would like to have to help them teach, then listen. Pay no attention to people who claim to be experts in what kids want but spend no time in the classroom (like me, for example).
Read the SMATOOS review of The Elements here.
Images from Touch Press.