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On a bright May afternoon, a gaggle of seventh graders armed with water-resistant iPads dispersed along the muddy banks of Parker Meadow Pond in Lexington, Massachusetts a few blocks from their school. Working in pairs, the students followed an online map to various “hotspots” around the pond’s perimeter where a virtual wildlife ranger popped onscreen to ask for measurements of the water’s temperature, dissolved oxygen, or turbidity (water clarity). Using environmental probes linked wirelessly to their computers, the kids gathered location-tagged data and uploaded text or video observations about what they’d found.
The Harvard researchers piloting this blend of virtual and hands-on science call it EcoMobile. It’s an example of the growing interest educators have in “augmented reality” in which a digital game, interactive story or learning quest is superimposed onto real-world locations via GPS-enabled smartphones or tablet computers. While digital education initiatives often promise to liberate learning from real-world constraints such as time and space, augmented reality reasserts the power of learning that’s rooted in a real, physical place. Think of it as ed-tech that gets its boots dirty.
“So much can be done virtually for learning, but the relevance of it tends to stay in the virtual space,” said Amy Marie Kamarainen, a post-doctoral researcher at Harvard’s School of Education and co-leader of the EcoMobile project, now in its fifth year of National Science Foundation funding.
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The EcoMobile developers don’t discount the value of virtual teaching tools. In fact, before the students in the pilot classrooms get to muck around a real pond, they spend two weeks learning ecosystem basics by solving the mystery of a major fish die-off in a virtual pond they explore through another piece of software called EcoMuve that the Harvard team designed a few years earlier.
“The kids we’ve worked with say that the virtual pond experience is cool and helped them a lot,” said Kamarainen. “But, they really loved EcoMobile, because it helped them see how the things they learned matter. They start noticing and paying attention to things in their local environment that they hadn’t before.”
She predicts it will be six months to a year before the EcoMobile software is sufficiently refined that teachers can download its components and weave them into science lessons without the technical and logistics support of university researchers.
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Meanwhile, a handful of downloadable programming tools, such as ARIS, FreshAiR and TaleBlazer, are already available for ambitious educators and students who want to craft their own unique augmented reality experiences. It’s not the simplest project for a busy classroom teacher to tackle. For instance, because most location-based augmented reality platforms rely on GPS, it’s tough to make them work indoors. Still, augmented-reality doesn’t need to win design awards or surround users with slick graphics and media to be an effective teaching tool, according to Matt Dunleavy, a professor of instructional technology at Virginia’s Radford University and the cofounder of FreshAiR. In fact, Dunleavy thinks augmented reality that’s too engaging on the digital side of things might be counterproductive.
“If we have students staring at their phones the whole time, then I think we’ve missed the point,” he said. “We don’t want to cognitively pull people out of their environment. We want to use text, audio, and video to drive them deeper into it.”
That kind of deep engagement gets an even bigger boost when the students themselves create the augmented-reality experience, as shown by the high-school students in New York City who have used TaleBlazer to program history games based in different neighborhoods around the city. For instance, last year an unmarked slave graveyard from colonial times was discovered in a park in the South Bronx outside the boundaries of a well-kept cemetery for whites. A group of high-school students from that neighborhood, supported by the education nonprofit Global Kids, tapped historical data from the New York Public Library, photo archives from historical societies, city records and old maps to create an augmented-reality game called “Haunts.” In the game, ghosts of former slaves—composite characters created by the students—appear on smartphones to tell their stories when visitors explore the section of the park where the graves were discovered. The ghosts agree to cease their haunting if the visitor can reunite them with cherished objects from their lives—such as a blacksmith seeking a sword he fashioned or a small girl asking for the doll she cuddled with at night—all retrieved digitally in the game.
“You could do all that in the virtual world, but this is a real place,” said Judy Perry, the research manager at MIT’s Scheller Teacher Education Program where TaleBlazer was created. “The history is there, and the bodies are there. And it’s right there in their neighborhood. The authenticity of it is undeniable.”
Authenticity was also paramount back at Parker Meadow Pond, where one of the main lessons of EcoMobile was about the causes and effects of natural variability in ecosystems. The virtual ranger told students to compare water samples taken at different locations and to look at data collected at the pond by students in previous years.
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The ranger’s instructions prompted one boy to venture knee-deep into the muddy flats before a researcher coaxed him back to more solid ground. “I was trying to get out there where I could get a really stable measurement,” he explained. In a clearing, about 50 yards down the path, another student held up a small vial of murky pond water while his partner took a video of him explaining its significance.
“This has a turbidity of 151.3 NTU (nephelometric turbidity units) and our other sample was just 57.3,” he said. “That’s a major, hundred-point difference in NTU, which we thought was very interesting. There was more dirt and logs near the first sample, which might explain it.”
Nearby, their science teacher, Allison Kugler, took it all in. “Tomorrow in class, we’ll talk over what they measured and try to put the pieces together and make sense of out of it,” she said. “I love to walk around and hear them casually say something like, ‘I think there’ll be more dissolved oxygen in the water over here, because the water is moving.’ That’s exciting for me as a teacher.”
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