Learning beneath the trees

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In Greek mythology, talking trees were a bit of a “thing.” The rustling leaves of an oak tree were believed to be the voice of Zeus. And the great Greek thinker Philostratus once wrote about two philosophers who argued under an elm tree until the tree eventually spoke up to interrupt.

Although scientists today have concluded that talking trees don’t exist, a group of Penn State researchers and IT staff are using new technologies to make trees — and rocks and caves — a little more interactive.

Susan Land and Heather Toomey Zimmerman, associate professors of education at Penn State, are leading a project that uses iBeacons (transmitters the size of a guitar pick that can communicate with mobile phones and tablets) to turn spaces like The Arboretum at Penn State into interactive places of learning for children and their families.

The project, funded by a Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) Research Initiation Grant, was inspired by museums across the country — including the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State — that have been using iBeacons to enhance visitors’ experiences.

In these cases, museumgoers are prompted to download an app to their mobile device at the beginning of their visit. As visitors explore the museum, the apps activate when they are near an iBeacon and display content relating to whichever exhibits are close by.

But Land’s project is distinctly different.

“While there’s ample opportunity for learning at The Arboretum, it’s not always visible to youth and families visiting the space,” said Land. “We want to use technology to make the most of this space and other places like it.”

Land and Zimmerman created several “learning tours” of The Arboretum that are triggered by iBeacons. A tour called Tree Investigators teaches school-aged children about the different ways trees produce their seeds. Land and Zimmerman placed iBeacons in several species of trees — crabapple and pine trees, for example.

To connect the iBeacons to the children’s mobile devices, they enlisted the help of Chris Millet, assistant director of Education Technology Services, who has overseen the development of an app called Penn State Places. The app allows users to create and upload content and assign it to a specific beacon. Then, when a person using the app approaches an iBeacon, the app will display content related to that location.

Millet says the goal of the technology is to enhance the user’s experience without drawing too much attention to itself. The group wanted The Arboretum to drive the experience without the user having to focus too much on the technology.

“I believe it's important to offer technologies that are smarter and more intuitive,” said Millet. “My hope for technologies like iBeacons is to find new ways to ensure students spend their time learning, with technology as a tool to support them and not distract them.”

Land’s group used the Tree Investigators program in April with a group of 9- to 10-year olds and more recently in August with a group of 6- to 10-year-olds. They allowed the children to explore The Arboretum at their own pace, letting them naturally gravitate to what interested them.

When a child opened the app to use the Tree Investigators program, a map of The Arboretum appeared with circles indicating where the iBeacons were located. As the child explored The Arboretum, a dotted line would surround the circle of the closest iBeacon, letting the user know they could click it to get more information.

Land and Zimmerman also placed iBeacons by limestone boulders and inside a model cave for another tour they created for the Children’s Garden, which explores the relationship between land and water in the Centre County region. Because the iBeacons are so small, children often didn’t notice them, creating the illusion that they were interacting directly with the landscape.

This created an engaging and immersive experience, where children could learn by playing, exploring, and recognizing and applying concepts along the way.

“Mobile technology has challenged traditional ways of thinking about learning spaces as being bound to a classroom,” said Land. “We wanted to focus on using technology to move learning out of classrooms and into community spaces by helping people notice and observe new things scientifically within their community.”

Land says the group observed children who were surprised about the new things they were learning, like one child who was surprised that pine cones start out very small and hold its tree’s seeds.

Zimmerman says it’s this kind of learning she hopes the technology will enable not just for children, but also for their families.

"Learning with your family is a powerful way for parents and children to understand new things — all while having fun," said Zimmerman. "Families can follow any topic that interests the family as a whole or individual members. So family learning is one important way that children and adults interested in science can learn more."

And getting more kids interested in science is a major goal not just of Land and Zimmerman, but also educators across the country.

“We see a distinct opportunity to support science learning informally by cultivating interests of youth and families during their time together in natural settings,” said Land.

So although they may not have allowed The Arboretum’s trees to actually talk, the iBeacons certainly sparked conversation, fun and learning beneath the trees for those who might become the next generation of scientists and philosophers.

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit news.it.psu.edu

Last Updated September 22, 2015