During last year’s trip to Wyoming for a geology class, students carefully recorded longitude and latitude, angles of sediment beds, rock types, and other observations in an orange field notebook. This year, students used an application on an iPad that was developed by four computer science and engineering students doing EXCEL research with Chun Wai Liew, associate professor and head of computer science.
“Last year, we had to go on Google Earth and type in each location’s coordinates,” says geology major Tyler Germanoski ’12 (Hellertown, Pa.), the class’ teaching assistant. “This year, it was all there for them and they just had to upload the data. What took us two hours each night last year took them only 15 minutes this year.”
During fall break, Germanoski joined seven of his classmates in Greybull, Wyo., to field test the app as part of the course Basin and Structural Analysis being team taught by Lawrence Malinconico, associate professor of geology and environmental geosciences, and David Sunderlin, assistant professor of geology and environmental geosciences. Students used the app, called GeoData, to digitally map a portion of Sheep Mountain, a barren and craggy area with exposed rocks ranging in age from 70 to 250 million years old.
“We looked for glitches and then reported back to the computer science department,” says geology major Caitlin von Stein ’13 (Centennial, Colo.). “It made it a lot easier to record the information. All the data was already on the computer and in one spot.”
The app, which replicates a field notebook but combines other devices, such as a GPS and camera, into one package, could change the way geologists do research in the field. By eliminating the need to input data at night, the app not only reduces transcription errors, it gives geologists more time for analysis and reflection on other areas to collect data.
“We’ve been keeping our ear to the ground about what sort of apps have been coming out and we haven’t heard of anything like what we’ve developed that integrates everything together,” says Sunderlin.
And if things go well, the app will be made available to a wider audience through Apple’s App Store.
“We want to be seen as a leader in pedagogy innovation,” says Liew, whose research is funded through the National Science Foundation. “That’s what the College should be pushing.”
The project began when Malinconico attended a digital field mapping conference for science educators at Montana State University two years ago. People were using laptops, but they were incredibly unwieldy and carried a steep learning curve, he says. After returning to campus, Malinconico and Liew discussed whether an iPad would be a more efficient device, but the first version didn’t have a true GPS and adequate camera, and there were issues with screen brightness.
“Chun Wai said to wait for the iPad 2, that it might be a more useful tool,” Malinconico says. “Sure enough it was.”
Work began on the app in June by four of Liew’s EXCEL Scholars: Kumera Bekele ’13 (Addis Ababa, Ethiopia), a computer science major; Andrew Ho ’13 (Upper Darby, Pa.), an electrical and computer engineering major; Samuel Courtney ’12 (Overland Park, Kas.), a computer science and electrical engineering double major; and Nicholas Escalona ’14 (Shoreline, Wash.), a computer science and physics double major.
Students met with Malinconico and Sunderlin several times for direction on what kind of features would be most helpful to a geologist in the field.
Liew had instructed students to treat the professors like “business clients,” a relationship that was eye-opening for both sides.
About a month after their first meeting, Malinconico received an email from one of the students saying, “We have a beta version going and we tested it with our engineering friends and we think it’s great.”
Malinconico responded by sending a two-page email outlining design aspects that didn’t work or needed to be changed.
“That was an interesting moment,” says Bekele. “We tried it on our iPad. We gave it to people in our group to try out. We thought it was working, but he came up with a long list of modifications. We expected some bugs, but probably not as many errors. Fortunately, there was time to fix it.”
Not having a client that was a computer science major was a good experience for the students, Liew says, because they learned that not everyone interacts with technology like they do.
“It was designed to be a real-life experience and it was,” says Bekele, noting the project required scholars to brainstorm design ideas, troubleshoot, prioritize tasks to meet deadlines, and work in a group.
Students are now refining an app for an Android tablet and working out a few glitches in the iPad 2 version. The next step is to recruit other institutions to road test the gadget.
In the meantime, those who went on this year’s Wyoming trip say the experience allowed them to apply what they’ve learned in class about how tectonic forces affect the earth’s surface.
“I have a better understanding of strike and dip measurements … and why they’re important in the tectonic history of a place,” says geology major Arielle Reyes ’13 (Queens, N.Y.). Not having to record the data by hand was nice, too, she says.