App review by Emily Pohlonski, Common Sense Education | Updated January 2019
CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs
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CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs

Interactive carbon cycle labs deepen student understanding

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Science, Critical Thinking

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Pros: Carefully scaffolded digital manipulatives help kids unpack complicated and crucial science ideas.

Cons: Students may skip over some text; only accessible to those with an iPad.

Bottom Line: Virtual labs help biology students investigate and model the movement of carbon and energy.

CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs was developed with high school students in mind, but middle school teachers may also find the carbon cycle theme helpful. AP and IB Biology students and teachers may find the Water Bonus activity useful, as it focuses on light-independent and light-dependent reactions. The app isn't all-encompassing, but it can be used over several days to support the NGSS topic bundle Matter and Energy in Organisms and Ecosystems. 

Teachers could use CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs with their entire class. Start by having each student download the app onto an iPad. Then install the Andamio dashboard on your teacher iPad. As long as you and the students are sharing the same wireless router, your students will sync up automatically to your dashboard. At this point, students will have access to all parts of the game. As they work, you'll be able to track their progress on the dashboard. Due to its careful scaffolding, the app could also be used to support striving learners as a targeted multi-tier system of supports (MTSS) intervention.

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CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs is an app for high school and middle school students to explore how photosynthesis and cellular respiration allow matter and energy to cycle through ecosystems. In six different life science themes, such as Capture Light and Break Water, students engage in simple virtual labs and drag and drop labels and pictures onto diagrams. 

There's some choice offered throughout CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs. Kids pick their favorite snack and then digitally grow a key ingredient of that snack. Students can earn coins to purchase the remaining supplies by opening up descriptions of key science ideas. If kids have extra coins, they can purchase additional virtual items, such as a bird feeder. The Andamio dashboard allows teachers to track how far a student has progressed, pause students, and showcase a student leaderboard.

CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs helps students deeply understand that matter and energy cannot be created or destroyed, a crucial NGSS crosscutting concept. Kids get to see where carbon goes after it's "burned up." This is great practice because many students retain the misunderstanding that this matter is destroyed. An interactive carbon cycle model moves beyond the traditional paper and pencil diagram with multiple paths for students to choose while they trace the movement of carbon. When actually using it, some kids quickly clicked on the images to earn the points but didn't read the descriptions. It would help if the students had a purpose up front for learning the content.

The virtual labs do provide interesting phenomena for students to figure out. In the Tree Lab, kids explore the question "Where does the mass of a plant come from when it grows?" They test the hypothesis that the mass of the growing plant comes primarily from the soil. While this lab requires nothing more from the students than interpreting data, it still addresses a common misconception. Kids are given a chance to reflect on this data and are guided through developing a conclusion. The Light Virtual Lab actually allows students to adjust the variables to the lab themselves. If students have a flaw in their experimental design, a comment will pop us asking them if they're sure they want to proceed with that selection. Instead of simply being given a graph, they make selections to build their own graph of the data. These virtual labs are similar to ExploreLearning Gizmos, but in CellEnergy Photosynthesis Labs, kids cannot revisit activities once they've completed them.

Overall Rating


Kids are offered a choice in the way they approach tasks. The themes are well organized and easy to navigate.


Digital manipulatives help kids examine the cycling of matter at the molecular, cellular, and organism level.  Students engage in investigations to figure out crucial NGSS crosscutting concepts.


Throughout the experience, students are provided with feedback about why selections are correct or incorrect. They have a chance to adjust their selections and learn from their mistakes.

Common Sense reviewer
Emily Pohlonski Classroom teacher

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