If you think that you need a set of expensive STEM sensors and interface device to build an up-to-date physics lab you’re dead wrong. The fact of the matter is that many of the latest tablets have a slew of digital sensors built in and all you need is the right software to tap into them.
To take this notion to its logical conclusion, I set up several of the latest sensor apps on an Asus Zen 8 slate or iPad Pro and tried out a few experiments. While none can match the abilities of dedicated lab sensors or the ability to measure voltage, current or resistance, they can be a good substitute for stand-alone sensors.
While these programs are more limited in scope that traditional STEM offerings, the programs are a big win for schools because they don’t lock you into a vendor and its products. Here you can mix and match. In other words, you can create a STEM lab for less.
Sensor Box for Android
A good way to get started, Sensor Box runs on Android phones and tablets. It lets you tap into sensors for acceleration, light level, sound level, horizontal and vertical orientation as well as magnetism. On the other hand, it doesn’t work with the Zen 8’s gyroscope.
The screen as a digital read-out, an analog interface – like a speedometer gauge for audio level– as well as a graph that tracks the sensor’s output. On the downside, you can’t graph several items at once, like sound and light levels or tag data with GPS position data.
The free software has ads, but they’re unobtrusive at the bottom. On the other hand, Sensor Box is fun and free.
Unlike the others, the Android-based AndroSensor has a no-frills interface but offers a good assortment of sensors. It shows a list of sensors (acceleration, gravity, light, magnetic field, orientation and sound level) with an explanation of the measurement, its units and the accuracy of the sensor.
You see the current readings along with x-, y- and z-axis orientation, when available. Click on the circle in the upper right corner of each section and a narrow graph of its data appears. Click again and the graph goes full screen. Unfortunately, you can’t run several streams on the same coordinates, but AndroSensor lets you time stamp a data set to help with physics experiments.
Like the others, this freebee has easy-to-ignore ads. Unlike Sensor Box – though – it can use GPS readings for tying physical data with a location.
Super Tools not only is for iPads but is the simplest app of the three and presents students with the practical use of the sensor data, like a compass, as well as a helpful unit converter and magnifying camera.
It can appear amateurish with a blank desktop icon and no place to make app-wide changes, like for inches versus centimeters. On the other hand, it is rock solid and dependable.
Like the others, it has a magnetometer, although it’s call a Teslameter in honor of the unit and the scientist. It has discreet ads at the bottom and occasionally takes you to a video game, but it’s easy to get back on the straight and narrow.
Of the app’s 18 sections, the most interesting is the program’s speedometer. It takes GPS readings and creates an average speed based on two or more positions. It’s great for outdoor labs, but is only as accurate as the GPS position fixes.
Its weather page shows not only temperature and barometric pressure but relative humidity, wind speed and direction. What it doesn’t do is tell you the source of this data. While I like the app’s level, the included screen-based digital ruler is calibrated for the 9.7-inch iPad display and I used the larger Pro model’s 12.9-inch display, so it was off by quite a bit.
Unlike the others, Super Tools doesn’t graph things, but is a powerful way to obtain your data.