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Smartphones: Powerful Tools for Science Education and Citizen Science

Posted December 9, 2013

That smartphone in your purse or pocket isn’t just for viewing movies and checking Facebook. By putting data collection, visualization and learning in the palm of your hand, it’s helping to transform science education and open up unprecedented opportunities for citizen science.

That’s the message of a persuasive new peer-reviewed commentary published by two Duke University faculty members in EOS, the weekly magazine of the American Geophysical Union.

“With more than 6 billion smartphones and mobile devices being used worldwide, this technology presents enormous possibilities – especially for the environmental sciences,” says Zackary I. Johnson, Arthur P. Kaupe Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

“We need to stop telling students, ‘It’s time for class; put your smartphones away,’ and start telling them, ‘Take your phones out now and let’s use them for science,’” Johnson says.

In the commentary, Johnson and fellow Duke Marine Lab faculty member David W. Johnston share detailed examples of some of the ways they and other geoscientists around the world are using the small but sophisticated handheld devices in the classroom, lab and field.

“We’re using them to search textbooks and reference works; share lab protocols; access notes and teaching tools; record real-time field data; take measurements and images – the list of functions grows with each new device or app,” says Johnston, assistant professor of the practice of marine conservation and ecology. “The new Android smartphone has a thermometer, compass, gyro, GPS, barometer and proximity sensors – all in addition to its standard audio, video and photo interfaces. It’s crazy what these devices can do now.”

In an undergraduate-level ocean ecosystem course Johnson teaches, students use smartphones to take photos of ocean color. Using the phones’ sensors and data processing tools, they can break the color of the water down into its three primary colors and develop algorithms to calculate algae populations in that part of the ocean.

“This is exactly the same as what sophisticated satellite imagery does. Only now, students can do it with their smartphones,” Johnson says. “They are functioning as very low Earth-orbiting satellites!”

Graduate students in Johnston’s marine mammal courses use a smartphone app to measure an equally challenging environmental parameter: distance to objects. Measuring these distances is a fundamental way scientists measure species populations in the ocean. It traditionally involves expensive equipment with considerable error associated with the measurements. Using an advanced view-finding app called Theodolite (, students learn how do it in less time with less error.

“Examples like these make a strong case for how smartphones and mobile devices fit into the best practices way of teaching,” Johnson stresses. “They help us be more effective teachers through increased emphasis on experiential learning.”

Citizen science is already benefitting from the new technologies.

“There are literally hundreds of apps and sensors now that allow anyone with a smartphone to record scientific observations,” Johnston says.

Working with researchers from the Murdoch University Cetacean Research Unit ( in Australia and the nonprofit Marine Ventures Foundation (, his team recently helped develop an app for the Coastal Walkabout project ( in Western Australia. The app, which can be downloaded for free, lets people record sightings of marine and estuarine animals and transmit a photo or video of the animal, along with its species identification and the location and time of the sighting, to an open-access database.

“Start to finish, the whole process takes maybe 30 seconds. It’s nearly as easy as sending a text,” Johnston says.

The beauty of apps like this, he says, is that they’re win-win. Citizens get a voice, and a role, in monitoring and protecting their local environment. And scientists get access to data that may be missed otherwise.

Powerful as they are, smartphones and mobile devices will never replace everything educators do in the classroom, Johnson and Johnston stress. Care must be taken to balance open-ended discovery with structured educational experiences for students and citizens alike. “Achieving the right balance will take some trial and error,” Johnson says, “but ultimately we’re confident it will be a true success story for science education.”

You can read the full commentary here.

Source: Duke University

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