Innovative Spirit

This App Puts a Science Lab in Your Pocket

Lab4U turns smartphones and tablets into scientific tools

Developed by Komal Dadlani, Lab4U apps take advantage of a smartphone's built-in sensors. (Vimeo)
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Most everyone seems to agree that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education is the way of the future. STEM educated workers are in high demand and have a low unemployment rate. And college graduates with STEM degrees earn far more than their non-STEM peers.

Yet in many parts of the world, including much of the U.S., science education is deeply inadequate. Some of this is due to lack of resources—according to the Inter-American Development Bank, some 88 percent of Latin American schools don’t have science labs. Some is due to insufficient teacher training—nearly a third of American high school science teachers didn’t major in the subjects they teach and don’t have certifications.

Chilean Komal Dadlani was working on a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Chile when she became aware of the fact that many students in her native country lacked the equipment to properly study science. So she connected with two fellow students—Alvaro Peralta, who was finishing a master’s in information technology, and Isidro Lagos, who was studying biochemistry—and founded a company to do something about it. Their company, Lab4U, develops apps that turn smartphones and tablets into scientific tools. This way, any student with access to a phone has a way of conducting research in the physical world.

“As Latin Americans passionate about science, we knew the reality of science education in schools and universities in the region where resources are limited,” she says.

The Lab4U apps take advantage of a smartphone’s built-in sensors. Their physics app uses the phone’s speedometer to study things like velocity, distance and displacement, and it turns the phones microphone into a sonometer to study waves, amplitude and time. Its accelerometer is used to measure gravity. Their soon-to-launch chemistry app turns the phone’s camera into a sensor so the phone can be used as a spectrophotometer or a colorimeter. This means students can measure a material’s reflection or transmission properties. A biology app, which uses a cheap laser lens to turn a phone into a microscope, is under development. Lab4U even applied for a patent for one of its innovations, a system for determining the concentration of solutes in a colored liquid, using the smartphone as a colorimeter. 

The physics app has more than 20 pre-designed experiments that students can do with the phone’s tools. In one, students play different notes on a musical instrument, then use the app's sound tool to figure out the relationship of the tone of sound with frequency. In another, students turn their cell phones into pendulums to understand how oscillation works. Lab4U is currently looking for beta users for the chemistry app, which will be released this year.

“Teachers lack tools and above all, support and ideas on how to make science an adventure,” Dadlani says.

Lab4U has users all over Latin America—Chile, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay—as well as the United States. They’ve done pilots on using their technology in the Middle East as well, and will soon be in India. In total, they work with more than 50 schools and 20,000 students. User response has been extremely positive, Dadlani says. According to Lab4U’s research, students have a 40 percent increase in performance on physics testing after using the app. And teachers seem to like it to—some 70 percent use the app on a weekly basis.

Allan Yuen, director of the Centre for Information Technology in Education at the University of Hong Kong, says using technology like apps in science education is becoming more common around the world. There are many benefits to this, Yuen says, especially when it comes to cost. But there are also concerns about relying heavily on technology. 

One concern is the challenge technology poses to curriculum development. "Science is a subject with a long history, so the curriculum is in some ways quite traditional," Yuen says. "So then if you want to use apps and other recent technology, then you need to change the whole structure of the curriculum." 

Another issue is gender, Yuen says. There tends to be a gender gap in technology—from a young age, boys are more likely than girls to be shown how to use mobile devices by their parents, and are more likely to be encouraged to pursue interests in technology as hobbies. This means that boys may come to school already ahead in technology, and, if that technology is necessary to understand science, then girls may fall behind in that too. These issues need to be considered when implementing mobile technology-based curricula, Yuen says. 

"We should design and think about this as a whole rather than just make a change in one aspect," he says. 

Recently Dadlani won Toyota’s Mother of Invention prize, which honors female entrepreneurs, inventors and innovators. The award comes with a $50,00 grant. She’ll also be speaking today at the Women in the World Summit in New York, a conference celebrating women who’ve had a major impact in their fields, dedicated to helping women and girls progress in various areas of achievement.

“It's been an honor for us,” Dadlani says.

Dadlani has had the chance to run experiments with the Toyota Mirai, the company’s hydrogen fuel cell car. One experiment, which would normally be done with a toy car, uses the Mirai and the physics app to measure position over time. Another experiment measures acceleration over time, using the physics app’s accelerometer capacity.

Dadlani hopes Lab4U will democratize science, allowing even students in low-resource countries and schools to do hands-on experimentation. She also hopes to inspire students to truly love science, perhaps encouraging more to go into STEM fields. This is particularly critical in countries like Chile, which has a much lower number of scientists per capita than other developed nations (Chile has 320 researchers and developers per million people, while Spain has 2,889, Denmark has 6,744, Canada has 4,649, South Korea has 5,380 and the U.S. has 3,867).

“We need to empower students, they need to enjoy and generate new ideas and solutions, to see the world around them, where technologies and new methodologies should inspire curiosity and allow them to have lifelong learning beyond the school,” she says. 

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