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Using Phones Smarter: As Mobile Lab

by Jonah Bossewitch

The past few months many of us at CCNMTL have been thinking a lot about the educational possibilities around mobile computing. Some of our Triangle Initiative projects and Earth Institute-related development efforts have leveraged mobile technologies for social impact. Mobileactive and the Open Mobile Consortium are good examples of groups thinking about applying mobile technology towards the public good.

When it comes to education, I have come across limited experimentation with educational uses of mobile technologies. The approaching wave of location-based services has some obvious educational implications, as any physical space can be transformed into a learning experience (akin to a museum tour) with the right supporting media.

The current generation of smart phones are incredibly powerful devices, though a quick survey of the educational apps for iPhones mostly leverages their ability to play back video or run small animated simulations:
50 Useful iPhone Apps for Science Students and Teachers

Considering that these small devices pack a growing array of sensors - accelerometers, compasses, cameras, microphones, and now gyroscopes - it seems that these gadgets can function as amazing scientific data collection instruments. Well-designed labs could teach students to use their smart phones as proper scientific instruments - observing, collecting, recording, and analyzing the wealth of empirical data these sensors could be unleashed on.

So, for example, physics students could be sent into the NYC Subway system and help us finally answer the question if we should transfer from the local 1 train to the express at 96th Street. Which train accelerates faster? Which has a higher top-speed? Given the schedule, which times of day is it worth transferring to the express? Does it matter how far you are traveling?

Labs like these would be situated in the real world, and would help orient students to approach their everyday experiences with a scientific perspective/stance. It might also teach them a new found appreciation for the powerful devices in their pockets. Students can learn to apply scientific rigor to their data driven lives.

I have come across some early experiments in this area, including an activity being developed for One Laptop Per Child that allows students to capture time-lapsed photographs, as well as a student at NYU's ITP program who is tracking, recording, and representing the bumpiness of his commute using his smart phone - seismicylcing.

With recent announcements like, a $10 cellphone microscope attachment, and smartphone vision tests the need for curricular development around mobile scientific devices continues to grow.

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