Mobile Phones: They're Not Just for Games

Scott Heggen is a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and a volunteer Citizen Teacher at Citizen Schools North Carolina.  Imagine a group of sixth graders, armed with mobile phones and a desire to help their community, making bold changes to their world all through the power of the scientific method. No need to imagine; this is exactly what they do in the Mobile Application Development (MAD) Science apprenticeship at Citizen Schools. The kids get out of their seat and into their community, and instead of making them learn science, we let them learn science by doing science.

scott heggenMAD Science stemmed from citizen science, a movement where volunteers act as data collectors in a real-world scientific study. The idea originated out of the need for large-scale data collection to understand big phenomena such as bird migratory patterns, global warming, and even evolution.

As with anything large-scale, the cost and complexity of the system often hinders these types of research. However, with today’s advances in mobile technology, this research is now possible, and the tools to collect the data are in the pocket of nearly every person on the planet: the mobile phone.

There are approximately six billion (and rapidly growing) mobile phones around the world, each with a wealth of sensors embedded in them: cameras, camcorders, microphones, GPS, and accelerometers, to name a few. Six billion data collectors armed with the tools necessary to provide meaningful scientific data sounds like a golden opportunity for science, but one challenge remains: actually getting people to volunteer to collect data.

mad science1For the past year, I have had the great opportunity to work with the best volunteers out there: the students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina. Through the Citizen Schools apprenticeship program I was able to do things scientists have been hoping to do for years, and I did it with 12-year-olds. We created a mutually beneficial relationship where citizen scientists have a new source of data, and students are gaining real-world knowledge of the importance of science.

In MAD Science, students learn how to conduct the scientific method, but the benefits extend beyond science. By using mobile phones, the students are also engaging with technology in a productive manner. They see a mobile phone as more than a toy; they see it as a sensor-rich computer with the ability to help their community become a better place to live.

Through the apprenticeship program at Citizen Schools, science and technology become accessible, engaging and a lot fun. By applying the deep domain-specific knowledge they gain through their citizen science project, they learn to apply general science and technology knowledge into other areas of STEM, including data-collection best practices, data analysis, scientific methods, and other areas specific to their projects. Students are experiencing science in a hands-on environment, and seeing how it affects their surroundings, and how technology plays a key role in their ability to conduct meaningful science.

So the next time you see a kid with a smart phone in her hand, don't assume she's playing Angry Birds. She might be making your world a better place to live.

To learn more about Scott Heggen and citizen science, you can read his article published on the Association of Computing Machinery's digital magazine, Interactions. To find out how you can bring science to life for students, click here.