At Lehigh Valley campus, mobile technology enables biological discovery

As the course title suggests, Biology: Basic Concepts and Biodiversity is meant to introduce students to the study of life in its many and varied forms. For Karen Kackley-Dutt, instructor in biology at Penn State Lehigh Valley, the challenge is sometimes, ironically, bringing the concepts elaborated in text books to life for her students. This fall, Kackley-Dutt looked for an entirely new solution to the problem and found it in the palm of her hand. An iPad mini, outfitted with a simple microscope attachment and loaded with freely available apps, allowed her students to break out of the classroom and explore the biodiversity of the campus in an up-close, streamlined and completely mobile way.

(Learn more about the Lehigh Valley campus.)

Kackley-Dutt was inspired by a colleague's "BioBlitz" lab project, which helps students take the first steps in the process of observing and documenting organisms in their habitat.

"Most people develop an interest in biology from personal experiences with living things and noticing how they affect us; like the leaves changing colors marking a change in season, or even how flu outbreaks cause students to miss class," said Kackley-Dutt. "The Lehigh Valley campus encompasses 29 acres. Our students probably notice the trees and the geese, but do they really grasp the diversity of organisms that live here? Probably not as well as they may think."

"I'll see a student who, at the beginning of this, was cringing at the thought of getting close to spiders and tree frogs and fungi, and now is getting right in there and using the technology and seeking out the organisms. I see them start to take notice of the world around them a little more deeply and I think, 'Yes! Now they get it.'"

-- Instructor Karen Kackley-Dutt

The BioBlitz assignment, which involves identifying and photographing different types of organisms, would help open students' eyes. Unfortunately, in its current state, the assignment required cumbersome and expensive technology to complete. Kackley-Dutt discovered a way to adapt it by using the ProScope Micro Mobile magnification lens for iPad mini. Fitted over the iPad's camera lens, the ProScope allows students to see and photograph life forms in the field.

"I never would've thought of taking a tablet outside and using it for this kind of project. It's so easy to use and really let me get hands-on experience with identifying the organisms," said Corey Wilson, a first-year student from Milford, Pa.

The students were divided into groups and asked to find, identify and photograph two each of six categories of organism including vertebrate and invertebrate animals, flowering and non-flowering plants, fungi and microscopic organisms. The availability of free apps loaded directly onto the iPad minis assisted the students in the identification process.

"It gives us more time to do observation because we don't have to capture a photo or collect a sample and then take it back to class to research what it is," said Justin Zambelli, a first-year student from Salisbury Township, Pa. "It's pretty cool to have everything we need right at our fingertips and have the freedom to go anywhere on campus to find different species."

With the help of funds provided by a private donor, Kackley-Dutt was able to secure 10 iPad minis and ProScopes for the class. Compared to the cost of traditional lab equipment, the tablets are a very cost-effective tool for the students to use. Another benefit is that most students are familiar with the basics of using mobile technology, and even if they're not, it doesn't take much effort to pick it up.

"In this class, my goal is to get these students excited about biology and biodiversity," she said. "When using a traditional microscope, there is a significant learning curve that takes time to overcome. The tablet eliminates that and lets the students get out and explore these concepts right out of the gate."

Kackley-Dutt has seen such success in using the iPad minis in her class that she already is using them for other lab projects that normally would require multiple pieces of lab equipment. For instance, the students are using the iPad and ProScope lens to observe and record the effects of different sugar concentrations on Daphnia magna, more commonly known as water fleas. They measure the organism's heart rate on the tablet's lab counter app and are able to use the video of the experiment to check their results as many times as needed. The wireless capability of the devices allows students to simply email their results to themselves for later reference when composing lab reports and presentations.

"For me, the greatest thing about this is seeing the students' perspectives transform," said Kackley-Dutt. "I'll see a student who, at the beginning of this, was cringing at the thought of getting close to spiders and tree frogs and fungi, and now is getting right in there and using the technology and seeking out the organisms. I see them start to take notice of the world around them a little more deeply and I think, 'Yes! Now they get it.'"

Last Updated November 16, 2013