Academic journal article The Science Teacher

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

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

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

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).

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:

* How do biotic and abiotic interactions affect interdependent relationships in an ecosystem?

* What factors limit an organism within an ecosystem?

* What is the human impact on the ecosystem?

Engineering design process

For this activity, the teacher incorporated components of a problem-solving process, particularly the engineering design process, in his instructional strategies. Typical elements of engineering design that the teacher covered include:

* Define the problem along with the criteria and constraints under which the solution needs to be developed.

* Research the problem with appropriate research methods to gain the background information needed to approach the problem practically.

* Brainstorm possible solutions without limiting the usefulness of each option.

* Choose the best solution by critiquing each possible solution based on parameters and criteria discovered through problem definition and research.

* Build a visual model of the solution so the feasibility of the solution can be monitored and adjusted as needed.

* Test the solution by exposing it to the parameters of the problem to learn about the solution's performance.

* Communicate the solution by documenting and presenting all results discovered during designing and testing of the solution.

* Redesign as needed through multiple iterations to attain an optimal solution.

A formal problem-solving process can help students better create an effective solution. However, the engineering design process may not always follow a linear path. The steps listed above can be modified to meet the unique challenges of a particular project. Regardless of such variations, students need to be engaged in the process to gain knowledge about the production of optimal solutions.

Research and brainstorming

What makes a good app? Students researched existing smart-phone apps and documented some of their favorites. The teacher challenged the students, as part of their research, to find websites that evaluated and critiqued different apps and discussed general components of effective and popular app designs. Each student documented his or her findings in a journal. As the students continued researching, they worked individually to generate their own ideas and then came together with the team to discuss the ideas for the ecosystem app. They also discussed with their teams the characteristics of good apps and how the different designs would meet the needs of consumers. (For several websites that list popular apps, see "On the web.")

App design

After researching and discussing different ideas among the group, each team member identified the optimal characteristics for the app. …

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