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“Active Explorer” Project Turns Smart Phones into Classroom Research Tools

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It’s a common concern among parents and teachers: Smart phones in the classroom are bound to be a distraction. But a new project, developed by AAAS, turns the increasingly common technology into a powerful tool for hands-on science learning.

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.

The “Active Explorer” project, launched in four Washington, D.C., schools this month, was designed to help students to become more active learners and collaborators, said Bob Hirshon, AAAS program director for technology and learning. He developed Active Explorer’s Web and mobile platforms 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.

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 as well. 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.”

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 taking some of the first Active Explorer quests. One classroom is using it to document the results of an experiment that compares how candles made from different materials burn. Another class will collect information on plant and animal species in the school garden. For the students, Hirshon said, “it’s a way of personalizing something that’s really big, and taking something that is hard to wrap your head around and bringing it into your real life.”

After evaluating the program in the four D.C. schools, 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.