Academic journal article The Science Teacher

There's an App for That: Using Smartphone App Design to Engage Students in Biological Ecosystems

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

There's an App for That: Using Smartphone App Design to Engage Students in Biological Ecosystems

Article excerpt

Today's students are sometimes called "digital natives" because technology has been integral to their lives for as long as they can remember (Prensky 2001). Teachers can tap into this digital engagement with the full support of many parents, who believe that incorporating technology into the classroom can make learning more fun and relevant to students (Cavanagh 2013). This article describes how one science teacher based an activity on designing smartphone apps to clearly and concisely communicate the interdependent relationships of a biological ecosystem. The teacher designed the activity to address several aspects of the latest science standards (Figure 1, p. 42).


Addressing the standards.

Besides addressing standards of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the project design addressed the following Next Generation Science Standards performance expectations (NGSS Lead States 2013).

* HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

* HS-LS2-6. Evaluate the claims, evidence, and reasoning that the complex interactions in ecosystems maintain relatively consistent numbers and types of organisms in stable conditions, but changing conditions may result in a new ecosystem.

* HS-LS2-7. Design, evaluate, and refine a solution for reducing the impacts of human activities on the environment and biodiversity.

Problem definition

Working in teams of two or three, students developed smart-phone apps that addressed the concept that organisms are dependent on the biotic and abiotic factors and relationships in their ecosystem and are also affected by human impacts. Each team was responsible for designing a different app. The students developed the app with a particular user in mind while making it quick and easy for the consumer to learn (Figure 2). Three essential questions drove the content of the lesson:


One student app design is called "Desert Defenders," which the student describes in a memo to the teacher (above). The app teaches about human and environmental impacts on desert ecosystems through gameplay. According to the design concept, the first screen depicts a sensitive desert environment. A short description pops up with background information. Once play begins, icons representing both positive and negative human and natural impacts fall from the sky at the top of the screen toward the ground at the bottom. The positive impacts include water conservation, recycling, native animals, and regional plant life; negative impacts include acid rain, trash, excessive water use, C[O.sub.2] emissions, and invasive species. As a new impact icon appears, so does a short description. Users must tap the negative impacts as they fall. Any that hit the ground deteriorate the environment. Conversely, positive impacts that reach the ground improve the environment. The various impacts are each worth 10 points.

Once enough impacts hit the ground, the level is completed or the game ends. As the user progresses through different levels, the game becomes more challenging and the environments more complex. At the end of each level and of the game itself a short real-life success story about positive human impacts or tips for improving the environment are displayed; for example, a story about how choosing native landscaping options that require little watering can help in drought-prone areas. Players gain valuable knowledge about desert ecosystems and the positive and negative impacts that can influence environmental conditions. wants students to include. Students can also develop multiple memos to illustrate a series of screen shots representing the sequence of navigation between various pages of the app. Students then presented their design concepts to the class, fielded questions, and received feedback. …

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