For the past four years I’ve had the great pleasure of TAing a course run by Chris Buddle, called St. Lawrence Ecosystems. SLE is an undergraduate, field-based ecology class with a strong emphasis on experiential learning.
Last year, students were tasked with designing a research project – start to finish – that they could execute in the arboretum on our campus. They could pick any plant or animal they wished to study, had to come up with a research question, design their methods, pull off intensive data collection during three 4-hour outdoor lab periods, then analyze and present their data.
This project was quite novel, considering that, a) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience outdoor labs in their first year of university education (WHY???), b) undergrads rarely get a chance to experience real, self-directed research, and c) we were loaned a set of WiFi-enabled tablets to “test run” the use of mobile technology in an outdoor class setting.
Students were not required to use the tablets: they were simply presented as another tool. As such, the tablets were adopted to various degrees by different research teams. For some, they were integral to the data collection process. Others used the internet access to check out online field guides to help them identify their study species. And some groups found they were more useful as a flat surface upon which they could write field notes on a good ol’ piece of paper.
As a component of this project, students were also required to reach out to, and connect with, different online audiences, including the general public as well as scientists, via Twitter and blog posts. The tablets let them post some pretty interesting tweets spontaneously and on-the-spot while in the field and doing research. Some of them were surprised (and pleased!) to discover that other people “out there” were interested in what they had to say, and that these people were happy to offer feedback, advice and assistance when asked.
Just a few of the many great tweets by this year’s cohort of students! Their enthusiasm for their chosen subjects is infectious!
One very cool development with this year’s group was that they (totally unprompted) started to tweet at their classmates in other groups, sharing relevant sightings and asking questions. This kind of in-the-field communication and collaboration was really fantastic to see (example top left, above).
Another fantastic benefit of the tablet-enabled connectivity was that it let us instructors keep tabs on, and chat with, the students much more easily. In the past, we’d spend most of the lab running around in this 245 hectare forest, trying to locate the research groups so we could check in on their progress. With the tablets we were a mere text message or a Skype conference away, and we could easily pinpoint their locations using shared GPS coordinates.
Anyways, I’m super-excited because the team I worked with on this project has just published an article about this tablet-trial-run in EDUCAUSE Review, an excellent periodical devoted to exploring the use of information technology in higher education. You can read the article here: “Tablets in the forest: mobile technology for inquiry-based learning“.
Screenshot of the SLE class blog
Also, if you haven’t already checked out the SLE students’ blog, “St. Lawrence Lowlands“, I highly recommend it </shameless plug>; it’s chock-full of really excellent natural history! This year’s cohort of SLE-ers are also writing blog posts about their study systems, and first of ten just went live this week, so please consider stopping by and leaving comments or questions. And, our students are still tweeting up a storm: you can easily check out their great, information-rich posts by following the #ENVB222 hashtag!