Includes real-world experiments based on the labs. Includes primer for parents.
You cannot see how much progress you've made while you're inside a lab.
- Bottom Line
How to Make Electricity is a top-notch educational iPad app, showing children the basics of electricity and power generation by working through a series of interactive labs and suggesting additional, real-world experiments.
By Tony Hoffman
You can't actually make electricity with your tablet with How to Make Electricity, but it's the next best thing. This educational iPad app includes four interactive labs that let students create and tinker with virtual batteries and generators by dragging components around the screen. They can toggle to an inside view that shows electrons in motion, and access a view that identifies each component. A parents zone provides more information about each lab and electricity in general, and suggests related real-world experiments. Well designed, interactive and educational, How to Make Electricity is well worth its $2.99 price, and earns our Editors' Choice.
Design and Features
How to Make Electricity is made by Crayon Box, which is also the creator of the Editors' Choice Namoo – Wonders of Plant Life , a multimedia primer on plant physiology. According to Crayon Box, the app is designed for children ages 9 to 11. I tested it with an Apple iPad Air 2 running iOS 10.2.
The app consists of four virtual labs, each geared around creating and perfecting a different source of electricity: Battery, Hydroelectric Generator, Thermal Power Generator, and Solar Panel. In each case, the object is the same: To maximize the power source's efficiency while testing it in a circuit. The battery or power source is shown on the bottom half of the screen. You modify it by adding and exchanging components, which are displayed as tiny illustrations on a bar at the bottom of the screen and can be dragged onto the battery. Then you test your battery in a circuit, shown in the top half of the screen, with a lightbulb and a voltmeter, and draggable components arrayed across the top edge of the screen.
You can run a tutorial in the first lab to learn the basics of how the app operates. The battery consists of a beaker filled with Coke, and above it are two clips, red and black, which act as positive and negative electrodes. You are told to drag two objects from the bar at the bottom of the screen, an iron nail and a copper key, to the clips, from which they hang suspended in the cola. Bubbles start to drift upward, and the voltmeter's needle should move. You can also substitute an aluminum fork for one of the electrodes, replace the Coke with water, and add salt to either liquid. If you generate too much power, you can damage components, as I was able to do. The needle spiked, the meter showed a red warning glow, the blades to a fan that I had added to the circuit went flying willy-nilly, and a circuit breaker tripped. Trying again, I was able to maximize the battery's power without overloading the circuit.
The other labs are conceptually similar, with features tailored to the particular type of generator or battery that each represents. For example, with the Hydroelectric Generator, you attach a magnet to a cogwheel and place them beside a tank of water. When you pump the water, it moves the wheel and magnet, inducing an electric current in a coil and the circuit attached to it. With the Thermal Power Generator, you add fuel (coal, paper, or wood) to a fire, heating water in a flask, which spins a pinwheel with a magnet attached to it, inducing a current in a coil. With the solar panel, you can change the position of the Sun, have a cloud pass over, make the wind blow, even have a bird poop on the solar array. All of these will affect the efficiency of the array and its power generation, as shown with the virtual voltmeter.
A Look Inside the Circuits
In the screen's upper left corner is an icon depicting an atom. Tapping it turns the icon into an eye, and gives you an interior look at the circuit, with electrons—depicted as little dots—in motion when the battery is running. The more electricity is being generated, the faster they move. The electrons move in one direction with a DC device (the battery and the solar array). With alternating current (either of the generators), they rapidly oscillate.
When the eye icon appears, a second icon pops up below it: a text balloon. Tapping it labels all of the parts of the battery and circuit, as well as the components displayed in the bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Thus, I learned that the electrical component partially hidden by the eye is a rheostat. Tapping it called up a text box telling me that "A rheostat is a device used to control current by varying the resistance."
A right-arrow button at the screen's upper right takes you out of the lab, to its entry page. You can see how well you did in constructing your battery or generator: its efficiency (in percent) is displayed above a battery icon. Entry pages for the labs are displayed carousel-style, so after finishing a lab you can scroll right and/or left to try your hand at another.
Beneath the entry pages is a link called Parents Zone, which is accessible by entering one's year of birth. The meat of this section is the Parents Guide, which gives parents guidance on how to use the app in helping to teach young children about electricity. There's a link for each lab, which goes to a several-page section discussing the basic science. In the battery section, for example, there is a diagram showing the inner workings of the first battery, and a photo and brief bio of Alessandro Volta, who invented it. There is also a section on actually creating a battery, with suggested experiments that largely match the virtual experiments shown in the lab itself.
My main quibble with the app's operation is that while you're in the midst of a lab, there's no way to know exactly how well you're doing. Yes, you can see the voltmeter edging up or down, and even peg the meter, but it's only on exiting the lab that you get to see the efficiency of your battery or generator. This makes it unclear how any particular action you take affects the power source's efficiency, especially if you're doing a lot of tinkering.
How to Make Electricity is a fun, interactive way to teach children about electricity and its generation. With a bit of supervision (provided in the Parents Zone section), kids can actually create some of the batteries they experimented with virtually in the labs, as well as embark on other simple projects. If you have a scientifically minded youngster, this app is a safe introduction to electricity (as opposed to my early exploration, which included an "experiment" involving a paper clip, magnet, and wall outlet).
As Analyst for printers, scanners, and projectors, Tony Hoffman tests and reviews these products and provides news coverage for these categories. Tony has worked at PC Magazine since 2004, first as a Staff Editor, then as Reviews Editor, and more recently as Managing Editor for the printers, scanners, and projectors team. In addition to editing, Tony has written articles on digital photography and reviews of digital cameras, PCs, and iPhone apps Prior to joining the PCMag team, Tony worked for 17 years in magazine and journal… More »
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