Program combines mobile devices and the outdoors in an unlikely pairing

Abby Fortin
September 12, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the age of digital technology, mobile devices are good for more than just text messaging and playing games. According to Penn State College of Education researchers, the combination of technology and the outdoors is getting children and their families outside to learn more about science and their communities.

Transforming Outdoor Places into Learning Spaces is a College of Education research and development project that takes place at the Arboretum at Penn State and at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, Penn State’s outdoor education field lab and nature center in Petersburg, Huntingdon County. It is an opportunity for people of all ages to develop understandings of deeper learning while engaging in activities on mobile devices.

The project, which was previously funded by the Center for Online Innovation in Learning, recently received a four-year, $1.5 million Innovations in Development grant from the National Science Foundation's Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program. Principal investigator Heather Zimmerman, associate professor of education (learning, design, and technology), and co-investigator Susan Land, associate professor of education (learning, design, and technology), joined forces in 2010 to create a research-to-practice partnership.

That partnership led them to begin interdisciplinary work with the Arboretum and Shaver’s Creek related to supporting rural families and youths to engage in science learning outdoors. Land and Zimmerman began their mobile computing research to create opportunities for people to learn deeply about their communities while having fun together.

Transforming Outdoor Places into Learning Spaces develops mobile material to engage families with children ages 4 to 12 to learn about the life and earth sciences, including topics relevant to everyday life such as pollination, watersheds, trees and seasonal cycles. The collaborative research team includes members from rural libraries, outdoor learning centers, and learning scientists from Penn State, as well as members of rural communities in Pennsylvania.

“When you are studying families or children learning in everyday and informal settings, it is so complicated. As researchers bring more than one discipline’s methods and ideas, it can help answer the important questions."

— Heather Toomey Zimmerman, associate professor of education

The topics to be investigated at the Arboretum and Shaver’s Creek through the program are specifically relevant to rural communities in Centre and Huntingdon counties.

According to Zimmerman, rural communities are underserved by indoor museums; however, they are places rich with outdoor trails, parks and forests.

The research project offers an innovative solution to the lack of indoor spaces dedicated to engaging in scientific activities by leveraging the beautiful outdoor spaces as science learning opportunities. The SPACES (Supporting Place-based Augmented Contexts for Engaging Science) system integrates mobile computing into rural outdoor places without ruining the aesthetic experience of being outdoors.

Because the SPACES project brings together educational learning theory, rural communities, science topics and emerging augmented reality technologies, Zimmerman and Land collaborate with scientists in various areas from the local community to the national level.

Scientists consulting on the project include Christina Grozinger, director of the Center for Pollination Research and distinguished professor of entomology in the College of Agricultural Sciences; Harland Patch, chair of the Center for Pollinator Research Arboretum Committee and assistant research professor of entomology; Eric Burkhart, director of the Shaver’s Creek Plant Science Program; Kim Steiner, director of the Arboretum at Penn State; and Alex Klippel, professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. Burt Pursel and Brad Kozlek from Teaching and Learning with Technology offer technological consultation to the project as well.

“The scientists from the Center for Pollinator Research are involved in long-term partnerships with educational researchers, including our team,” Zimmerman said. “Interdisciplinary collaboration works so well because of our shared interest in supporting having the general public, educators, farmers and growers, and extension agents learn about pollinators, native plants and local ecosystems.”

To accomplish the SPACES educational research, the team uses a new technology platform that has three components: an online content management system in which science content and activities can be input; a mobile app that family visitors will be able to download near the project’s end; and transmitters that will be placed at key outdoor locations that are detected by the app to provide content in a nonobtrusive manner. Through this carefully designed system, learners are able to engage not only with the mobile technology, but also with each other and their local outdoor environment.

The SPACES project builds from other successful interdisciplinary collaboration. Zimmerman has worked with Koraly E. Perez-Edgar, professor of psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts. Together, the psychology-education team was able to add mobile eye-tracking methods to better understand youths’ interest in science-related topics during visits to the Discovery Space science museum. This project resulted in a dissertation project and new publication in the journal TechTrends for College of Education student YongJu Jung.

“When you are studying families or children learning in everyday and informal settings, it is so complicated. As researchers bring more than one discipline’s methods and ideas, it can help answer the important questions,” Zimmerman said.

Through the interdisciplinary partnership involving Penn State students, such as Jung, Zimmerman added, “Students become ambassadors for the disciplines, speaking both groups’ ‘language’ if you will. This allows for further understanding between fields — which can help advance our collective understanding of how people learn.”

The programs not only involve the help of people from multiple disciplines, but they also are located in numerous locations. Despite being based at the University Park campus, Zimmerman, Land and the researchers travel throughout Centre and Huntingdon counties to accomplish this work. They visit libraries and the Shaver’s Creek facility, which is embedded within Rothrock State Forest.

“In our mobile learning work at Shaver’s Creek and the Arboretum, we use methods from the learning sciences and education,” Zimmerman said.

“But, we are bringing in scientists to advise us so that we are helping design activities that support youths and families to engage in the actual intellectual work that scientists do — we call that intellectual work ‘science practices.’”

Because of new discoveries and periodic changes in scientific work, Penn State College of Education learning scientists keep strong collaborations with life scientists. This level of partnership ensures that educational programs are able to help families gain an accurate picture of science.

“The science practices of ecologists, entomologists and botanists change over time. We want to make sure that people learn today’s science practices so that they understand how scientists do the work that they do,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman and Land will be working closely with other collaborators throughout the next four years to complete the design-based research study, with support from the grant they received. They will continue to conduct research, create new ways to engage in the outdoors, and gather data relevant to the study.

“Data collection includes video recordings of children and families in the outdoors, learning analytics of people’s behavior, and interviews with rural families,” Zimmerman said. “The project’s research design will allow for the development of educational theory, which supports rural families learning science within and about their communities.”

At the end of the project, the team will offer generalized design principles for technologically enhanced informal learning, which will be useful for other organizations with outdoor displays, gardens and trails.

With the help of NSF funding moving forward, Zimmerman’s and Land’s research team plans to continue to build knowledge for the informal STEM education field. They plan to advance collaboration beyond their team by creating a mobile computing infrastructure for community-oriented outdoor learning.

At the end of the project, Zimmerman said the team will be successful if they can increase engagement in science topics for rural communities.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 12, 2018