08/15/2013 08:27 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

The Best Back-to-School Apps for Middle School Students


Finding high quality and appropriate educational apps for middle schoolers is tricky business. Preteens are no longer engaged by rudimentary games and childish characters, yet still lack the skills and discipline to take on more complex, high school-oriented subjects. Apps that hit the bullseye for this age group introduce critical thinking techniques and reach these fickle young learners on their own terms.

Word Tree 3D FREE (free)
This app reinforces spelling and vocabulary skills in a most enjoyable manner. Word Tree 3D has a farm setting in which a tree is filled with apples, each containing a letter. Students "harvest" the apples by combining letters to form words. When a real word is submitted, the apples involved are plucked from the tree. Fast responses are rewarded, while slow play results in apples falling to the ground and decaying. Once a minimum number of words of each length are created, the game is successfully completed. Word Tree is both entertaining and educational for students in grades 5 - 6, and is a solid word study game for middle school students.

Washington D.C. by KIDS DISCOVER ($3.99)
While it is traditional for many middle school students to visit D.C., this app can supplement that trip or make for a reasonable facsimile for students who can't visit. The story of our capitol and it's famous institutions is told in a visual and interactive way, designed to appeal to students with different learning styles. The visuals are the calling card, but the reading is also well done. One neat feature is listening the Declaration of Independence as an audio file; the app is full of these little treats to deepen the learning experience. The Smithsonian, Supreme Court, and the story of the city's design are covered as well.

iSolveit: MathScaled (free)
Unlike many math apps that are really just "drill and kill," this one presents a unique challenge that promotes algebraic thinking in a fun way. MathScaled is an app that has a scale at the top that the user must balance using the shapes that are offered at the bottom. The user must logically deduce the "weight" of the shapes based on the information that is given. Level one begins with one scale, and you can progress to Level five which offers four more scales hanging off the main one.

Sun Seeker: 3D Augmented Reality Viewer ($6.99)
Understanding how and why the sun appears to move across the sky each day is a significant challenge for kids and adults alike. Sun Seeker offers a fun and easy way to visualize the apparent path of the sun for any date and time and from any location. The cost of the app may be prohibitive for some, but the product is extremely well designed and highly instructional. Sun Seeker takes an abstract, difficult to visualize concept and makes it accessible through the use of engaging animation and real-time interactivity.

iBrainstorm (free)
This app's simplicity almost mimics the simplicity of a packet of sticky notes and a marker carefully placed next to a piece of posterboard. It begs to be picked up as soon as the ideas start to flow. iBrainstorming immediately opens up to a large corkboard with three tiny icons on the top (a marker, an eraser, and a "+" tool). The curious viewer is drawn to press the "+" sign, and a colorful sticky pops up on the screen ready to capture your first idea. That's it! Tap on the sticky note to add text ideas to each sticky in iBrainstorm.

Educational apps in this article were curated by multiple appoLearning Experts including Ruth McQuirter, Rob Wellen, Michael Summartano, Terri Eichholz, and Lucie deLaBruere.