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Smartphone apps to make you (Americans) smarter

In light of a recent study that shows Americans are below average for math and literacy of all the developed nations, I have rounded up some apps my countrymen exercise our collective noggins.

Hey, America, have you got a second? We need to talk. It turns out we're not doing so well in literacy and math compared with most of the developed countries in the world. We also may not be as knowledgeable about our world as we think we are.

According to this article in the New York Times, a recent study out of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) puts the USA well behind most developed countries in the world in basic math skills, literacy, and working with technology.

Whether the problem is standardized testing, increasing poverty rates, or our entire education system, we clearly need to bone up on ... well, just about everything.

With that in mind, I put together this collection of apps to help us give our brains a little exercise. Some are for iOS, some are for Android, and some are for both. Also, of course, I recommend these apps to anyone -- not just Americans.


Stack the States (iOS|Android)
There's no better place to start than in our own backyard(s). Stack the States turns learning the state capitals, geographical locations, and flags of our 50 states into a fun game.

The way it works is you'll be asked a question about a specific state of the union, and your job is to pick from four states pictured at the top of the screen. If you select the correct state, you can drop it to the bottom of the screen. On your next correctly answered question, you'll get another to add to your stack. Once you pass the checkered line by stacking states (and answering at least 60 percent of the questions correctly), you'll earn a state to add to your collection.

The cute graphics add to the fun, making this game enjoyable for both children and adults.


Quick Math+ (iOS)
Want to brush up on your basic math skills? Quick Math+ challenges you to answer math equations correctly in the fastest time possible to earn a three-star rating. When you figure out the answer, you write the number with your finger right on the screen. There are four different skill levels, from beginner to extreme, so this game will be challenging for both kids and adults. When you finish a set of problems, a progress screen shows you how you fared against previous attempts so you'll know if you're improving.

The game comes with four different game variations, but all challenge you to do problems in your head to get the quickest time possible. I really like the challenge of going for the best time because it makes the game about how quickly you can answer questions rather than just getting the correct answer.


WolframAlpha (iOS|Android)
Rather than a game, WolframAlpha is an answer engine that answers factual questions directly, by computing the answer from sourced curated data. In other words, you can ask a complex question like "How old was Thomas Jefferson in 1780?" or "What is the diameter of Saturn?" and WolframAlpha will access thousands of domains to compute and bring you the answer directly, rather than give you a list of documents or Web sites like a search engine.

What makes having an app like this great for learning about the world around you is you can ask questions wherever you are and increase your knowledge bit by bit as you go through your day. It's important to note (in case you're wondering) that while parts of Wolfram Alpha are used in Apple's Siri for iPhone, this app gives you access to the full power of the Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine.


WikiLinks (iOS)
Most people know Wikipedia and the enormous amount of information you can access just by entering a search term. Most also know how quickly a person can get lost in all that information going from link to link and article to article. What WikiLinks does is it gives you a diagram of each link so you can track how you got from one page to another and read associated articles by touching a point in the diagram. It also organizes images associated with your current page at the top of the screen for easy access.

Another thing that sets WikiLinks apart from the official Wikipedia mobile app, is that it can play Wikipedia videos (the only app that can do so on iOS devices).

Though this app is not available for Android, you can get the official Wikipedia app for Android here.


Geomaster (iOS)
Once you've mastered the states in our union by playing Stack the States above, you need to expand your horizons by learning the countries of the world. Geomaster turns learning countries, monuments, flags, and major mountain ranges and bodies of water into a game.

To play, you simply pick a region like Europe, Asia, South America, or Africa, then start the game. Geomaster gives you a blank map (with country borders) and then displays the name of a country at the top. You answer by tapping the country on the map, and you can zoom in to the smaller countries with a pinch gesture. The object is to fill in the entire region in as little time as possible.

I'm a little ashamed to say I had a rough time picking out all the Latin American countries in my testing, but it helped me learn them by showing me the correct location with each wrong answer, then randomly bringing the same question back later. This way I was able to eventually remember where countries were and make the correct guesses to complete the region.