School & District Management

Mobile Apps Make Field Trips More Interactive

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 14, 2013 4 min read
Students on an EcoMOBILE Scientific Discoveries field trip work with handheld devices that prompt them to make observations about organisms at a pond, classify organisms they observe, and collect and compare water samples.

As districts cope with tightening budgets and testing schedules, field trips often fall by the wayside. But a new generation of field trips may make it easier to integrate curriculum and even assessment into real-world local settings students can explore.

Researchers and educators in a symposium at the American Educational Research Association conference here this month suggested the next generation of field trips may use “augmented reality” to make traditional museum or zoo tours more interactive—or even create a field trip in a neighborhood or empty lot for a school that otherwise could not afford one.

As opposed to virtual reality, in which students use avatars to interact in an online world, augmented reality uses mobile phones and tablets with Internet, GPS, and camera capabilities to overlay information in particular areas. A mobile app may pose questions or trigger virtual conversations and scenarios when a student enters a specific area or takes a picture of a place or object.

“We can imagine malls for teaching economics, cemeteries and neighborhoods for teaching history,” said Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “There is tremendous richness in the real world that can be harvested.”

For example, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, in Ohio, used a Massachusetts Institute of Technology tool called TaleBlazer to create a game for children to “uncover” the illegal wildlife trade through exploring animal exhibits.

Similarly, the Mentira project, developed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created a walking history and murder-mystery field trip in an old Albuquerque, N.M., neighborhood for students in a University of New Mexico Spanish class, complete with simulated phone calls.

The startup cost in developing Mentira was $10,000 in 2010, mainly to buy equipment, according to Chris Holden, an assistant honors professor at the university.

The walking tour is now a standard part of the Spanish course, and Mr. Holden said teachers and students have been developing their own games around field trips in local parks and zoos using the same open-source design tool.

Exploring a Pond

The ability to overlay information can make an otherwise dull location intellectually stimulating.

“Sometimes we don’t have a rich environment; sometimes it’s just a playground with a fire hydrant,” said Matt Dunleavy, an assistant professor of educational technology at the Gaming, Animation, Modeling, and Simulation Lab at Radford University in Virginia.

A case in point: EcoMOBILE (Ecosystems Mobile Outdoor Blended Immersive Learning Environment), a field trip program created as part of Harvard University’s science learning technologies, created a field trip and supporting lessons around a city pond in the Northeast.

In EcoMOBILE’s Scientific Discoveries trip, five 6th grade classes spent 3½ hours at the local pond. Students could approach any of five geographically tagged spots around the pond. An application on their phones allowed them to take and compare water samples at different parts of the pond, sketch animals in the habitat, and answer quizzes on the role of different organisms in the ecosystem. Pairs of students also took photos with their phones and compared notes.

At a class debriefing, teachers mapped the photos and used them to discuss the types and quality of evidence gathered at different sites and talk with the students about how to improve their data.

“We know that learning is different in different contexts; what happens in the classroom may look different from what’s happening in the field,” said Amy M. Kamarainen, the co-director of the EcoMOBILE Project at the New York Hall of Science in New York City, who was involved in evaluating the Harvard project. “We hope we can help students develop practices that mirror real scientific practices and carry them from the classroom to the real-world environment,” she said.

Students significantly improved their understanding of concepts such as oxygenation and pH levels—on average, by 19 percent, based on assessments given before and after the trip—and teachers reported the students acted more engaged than they had on more traditional field trips.

“Teachers said that rather than having students clustered in one muddy spot, they were going at their own pace,” said Ms. Kamarainen.

Moreover, she noted, students who answer a question incorrectly at one “hot spot” will be sent to a different place than students who answer correctly. Thus, teachers and researchers can literally “map” students’ understanding of key concepts on a field trip by using the phones’ GPS technology.

Radford’s Mr. Dunleavy cautioned, however, that teachers should think of technological games as a tool to enhance school trips, rather than take them over. He recalled one zoo-based game that gave elementary students the ability to view 3-D images of an animal’s skeletal structure; students and their teacher became so engrossed in the virtual animals that they totally ignored the live ones.

“If you’re not designing it right,” Mr. Dunleavy said, “the kids will get stuck in the machine, instead of the technology driving them deeper into the environment.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2013 edition of Education Week as Mobile Apps Aim to Deepen Lessons From Field Trips

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