Technology Creates New Opportunity in the Classroom

August 18, 2015

Interacting with technology has become an extension of ourselves thanks to the portability, power and versatility of smart phones, tablets, and laptops. And what’s more, there are millions of apps that allow us to do many diverse tasks in all aspects of our lives quicker and easier. What if you could inspire your students to use these devices for science research? What if you could use them to create an app specifically for your classroom or school such as an arboretum trail or a garden your class may have planted? Perhaps you can find an app close to what you need, but what if you could think outside the box to develop your own class app to engage your students in what they are studying without the high cost of paying a programmer to develop it for you?

Dr. Jere Boudell, Professor of Biology at Clayton State Universityin Morrow, Georgia, is interested in doing just that! Attempting to bridge the gap between the world of technology and ecology through mobile app development, Dr. Boudell creates Android apps for use in ecology, outreach and education, in addition to teaching workshops and running EcoHackathons where she teaches others to use this technology for their own benefit.

Thinking Outside the Box.

Thanks to her love of technology, Dr. Boudell participated in a few regular Hackathons on her own prior to 2013. Realizing what she was learning personally could have far-reaching benefits professionally for both ecologists and educators, she decided to find a way to make it possible. In 2013, Dr. Boudell found a platform for Android mobile application development called MIT App Inventor. A blocks-based programming language, MIT App Inventor dramatically decreases the learning curve for programming and is both fun and easy to use. It is an ongoing, fully supported project under the direction of Hal Abelson at the MIT Center for Mobile Computing.

Dr. Boudell has made it one of her missions to share her knowledge with others and to inspire them to be creative and innovative by applying technology both in the field and in the classroom. Deciding to test MIT App Inventor on her own students at Clayton State University, she requested the help of a programmer on campus and held her first EcoHackathon. “We noticed immediately how engaged the students became – it was a challenge for them, but it was fun. We ordered pizza for them, but they were so engaged in their challenge, they did not even eat the pizza! Now, that’s saying something!” In that first EcoHackathon, Dr. Boudell says they were able to take students who had NO programming experience coming into the event, and they were able to create apps for ecology in seven hours.

After the event, Dr. Boudell contacted the MIT App Inventor Team to share her experience with them. Excited about her purpose for using the app, they asked her to submit an application to make a presentation at a summit they were holding. She was selected to present her EcoHackathon experience at the summit which has led her to teach workshops and run other EcoHackathons. Dr. Boudell has also taught workshops to faculty so they can learn to develop apps for themselves, as well as, for use in their classroom. By implementing these apps in their classroom, their students become more engaged and more knowledgeable about the technology they are using, and in turn, learn problem-solving skills through programming.

Dr. Boudell has two goals in teaching others to use technology. One is to unleash the creative mind in technology and science because the apps being developed by engineers are more for profit than being specific to certain scientific research needs. The other is to empower people to create apps within their field and develop logic-based, problem-solving skills in the process. Dr. Boudell says, “Due to the advancement of technology, young people have lost out on the opportunity to develop some technology skills such as programming. It is great to see the excitement of accomplishment on their face when they create an app!”

Putting this technology to work on the campus of Clayton State University, Dr. Boudell created an Arboretum app for students and the community to use when visiting the University’s Arboretum Trail on campus. Originally, Dr. Boudell used QR Codes to link students and visitors to more information about each plant, but as time has gone on, she has now attached micro-chipped tags to each plant, which when touched with an Android Smartphone using the Arboretum app, opens up specified information about each plant. Dr. Boudell’s efforts have also impacted the Atlanta community. As a direct result of Dr. Boudell’s EcoHackathons, two of her ecology students have worked with a local nature preserve to build an app for visitors to use on their Android Smartphones when touring the preserve. This app helps visitors interact with the plants, and in the process, learn more about the plant than just its name.

Bringing research into the classroom and your community is so important to increase stewardship and awareness about the value of ecosystems services and to reinforce the idea that science is important. Thanks to Dr. Boudell, we can see what an impact technology can make in achieving this. To learn more about Dr. Boudell’s work and to see some of the other apps she has created, please visit her website, or follow her on Twitter @apps4ecology. If you are interested in running your own EcoHackathon, please email Dr. Boudell for help in getting started—she would love to hear from you!

Stephanie Miller

With over 25 years experience, Stephanie serves as a senior copywriter, social media director, and senior editor for Science Scene. Stephanie is always on the lookout for new educational and STEM-related opportunities and technology.