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AAAS “Active Explorer” Project Turns Cell Phones into Research Tools for Students

A new education project from AAAS aims to prove that smart phones can be more than a classroom distraction. Instead, they can be a powerful tool for helping students and teachers collaborate on creative, hands-on science learning.

The “Active Explorer” project taps into the technological savvy of elementary and middle school students. Students use the phones to collect data—anything from GPS coordinates for invasive plants in their neighborhoods to videos of a classroom experiment—to complete science “quests” developed by their teachers. They upload the information to a Web site where they can combine and share their discoveries as a slideshow, a comic book, or other creative presentations.


Students gather quest data using AAAS’s Active Explorer mobile app. [Credit: Bob Hirshon]

Bob Hirshon, program director for technology and learning at AAAS, developed the Active Explorer Android app and Web site after searching in vain for mobile software to use in a project where students made wildlife observations in their backyards. “Smart phones “have everything you need to go collect data,” he explained, “and yet there are not many useful tools to let educators harness that capability.”


He developed Active Explorer as part of a project supported by a grant from the Wireless Reach initiative of the global communications company Qualcomm; kajeet, an educational smart phone company, will provide wireless service for the project. Pilot testing of the program is underway in four Washington, D.C.-area schools.

Eight teachers and 120 students at Friendship Blow Pierce Junior Academy, John Burroughs Elementary School, Sacred Heart Bilingual Catholic School, and The Washington Middle School for Girls are using Active Explorer for a variety of quests both in and out of the classroom. Elise Heil, a sixth-grade teacher at Sacred Heart, has already designed a project for her students to help them connect real-world experiences with math skills.

Heil’s students will use the phones to record the height of a melting candle at five-minute intervals, using the data to write and graph linear equations that describe the candle’s collapse. “Our students are able to solve two-step equations and create graphs, but they’re struggling to grasp the meaning behind the numbers,” she said.

With Active Explorer, “we’ll also be able to point to the data values on the graph and the students will be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, at five minutes, the candle was this tall,’” she added, “and they’ll be able to connect their experience with the data.”

Although the program is aimed at fourth- through seventh-grade science students, Hirshon said its open design could be used to create quests in the arts and social studies. He hopes after-school program and club leaders might also be interested in the project. No matter what the topic, he said, students who work on the quests “are building knowledge independently, rather than acquiring it solely from a book or exercise.”

“It’s a way of personalizing something that’s really big,” he noted, “and taking something that is hard to wrap your head around and bringing it into your real life.”

Active Explorer’s Web site contains a “SmartWork” gallery of students’ research presentations, in keeping with the project’s goal of getting students to analyze and share their findings in creative ways. With the software, Heil said, “the level of student engagement is drastically higher. Students are interested in the pictures they take because they know they’re going to be held accountable for them later.”

Hirshon recently demonstrated Active Explorer at the 10-12 October Wireless EdTech, a national conference focused on cutting-edge research, practice, and policy issues surrounding the use of mobile broadband technology for education.

After evaluating the program in the four D.C. schools this fall, Hirshon plans to add new features such as Spanish-language versions of the Web site and the mobile Android app, along with new ways to collect data within a quest.


Visit the test site for AAAS’s Active Explorer.

Learn more about AAAS’s Education and Human Resources programs.