By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine's Future Writer
In the video the young woman stops her car at a nature center, rummages around in the backseat, picks up a field guide and . . . tosses it aside. Instead, armed with her iPhone, she heads into the woods to learn about trees.
The video promos a new app called Leafsnap.
Developed by the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Maryland and Columbia University, it aims to put detailed information about virtually every tree species in North America within your virtual reach. In addition to telling you what tree you're looking at, it will also map that information, giving scientists an idea of species distribution in the era of climate change.
But apps like Leafsnap may do more. Some say they may help spark, or rekindle, an interest in nature among kids who spend too much time in a virtual world, showing them that gaming, texting and talking aren't the only things to do on a phone or a laptop or an iPad.
To use Leafsnap you simply photograph the tree's leaf against a white background and the app makes an ID by matching the image against a leaf-image library. When it does, it gives you not only the common and scientific names, but information about the tree's flowers, seeds, bark, fruit, as well as high resolution photos.
The app works using the same technology developed for face recognition. It was originally designed to help scientists find new species. Now the public can use it to “get to know the plant diversity in their own backyards, in parks and in natural areas,” John Kress, the Smithsonian's chief botanist and the leader of team working on the project, is quoted as saying on the Leafsnap website. “This tool is especially important for the environment, because learning about nature is the first step in conserving it.”
Leafsnap is free and available now for iPhone and iPad. An Android version is in the works. The team started with trees in the Washington, D.C. and New York City areas and is now expanding to the entire northeast. The rest of the country, then the world, will follow. The Smithsonian says it will be the first in a series of "electronic field guides." Leafsnap has received kudos from science publications, nature bloggers, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Outside Magazine called it "the nature companion of the future." TreeHugger.com said it's a "dream come true." The Leafsnap team was awarded the 2011 Edward O. Wilson Pioneer Award for creating it.
The saying “there's an app for that” has already become so common as to be a cliché. Yet, it hasn't been half a decade since they started appearing in our lives. Apple's AppStore was launched only in mid-2008. Now, the AppStore alone trumpets 500,000 apps. By 2012 some 18 percent of the world's population had a smartphone that could use them.
Many educators, particularly, are embracing apps as a teaching tool.
“I think apps and technology, when used in the outdoors, provide more layers for learners to connect with the outdoors,” said Patricia Maloney, the Maine coordinator for Project Learning Tree, the national environmental education program sponsored by the American Forest Foundation. “When kids are introduced to these apps they pick it up fast. It's accessible learning technology that leads to a deeper understanding. If you have an app to the outdoors, say Leafsnap, you're going to get a lot of information right there in the forest on your smartphone. Kids get excited about that. Then they use all their senses. They have information, but they're also able to touch the tree, look at it, smell the tree, see the real colors of it and its place in the environment.”
Jaclyn Stallard, the manager of educational programs for the national Project Learning Tree, recently wrote in a column that “more and more schools view mobile learning as one of the best ways to integrate technology into education. These learning tools are flexible, portable and cost efficient answers to modern learning needs and requirements. Additionally, many students have mobile learning devices at home, are comfortable using them and take them everywhere anyway.”
Stallard identified 10 of what she considers the best of the so-called eco-apps, from a PLT point of view. Top of the list was Leafsnap.
Among her other top picks: WildObs Observer, a free app that lets users identify thousands of species of mammals, birds, plants and more; WildLab Bird, a free app that can help you identify some 200 species of birds; and AllTrails, by National Geographic, which allows users to plan hikes and walks.
In addition to nature-oriented apps, there are scads of other eco-apps out there, designed to do everything from helping you calculate your carbon footprint to upping your recycling rate; from learning to read the night sky to finding out if the fish on sale in your market is sustainably harvested. In fact, one of the most difficult things about using apps these days might be wading through all the offerings to find the one you and your kids want to use.
Some might argue that taking computers into the woods may move a kid outdoors, but that he's still interacting with the technology rather than the environment.
Not necessarily so, say app aficionados.
“Children are oftentimes using technology by themselves. It's them and the screen. If they're using technology in the woods as part of a class project or resource, it brings a social aspect into that,” said Maloney. “I see that it's important to show kids that are consumed with technology that you can use it to connect to your environment, your place, your geography.”
Bob Kuech, an associate professor of science education at the University of Southern Maine, agrees: “When I take students out in the field I don't like every one of them to have their individual phone or iPad to work on. They have to work two or three to a group. They can interact with the technology, but they also have to interact with each other and the environment.”
When he was interviewed, Kuech was waiting to hear whether the National Science Foundation had awarded him a three-year grant for nearly $500,000 to develop what might be called custom mini-apps for teachers.
So, that field guide that the young woman in the video tossed aside before grabbing her backpack to head into the forest, is it obsolete? Probably not. Yet.
But smartphones and apps have some distinct advantages over books, supporters say. Among them: ease of use and the sheer amount of information they can give you. And they can help students satisfy their curiosity quickly, keeping them engaged.
“On one of these little iPads we can pack, through apps, a tremendous amount of information that would be contained in a number of books that would be too cumbersome to carry into the field,” said USM's Kuech. “You can look something up very quickly when you're out there. And, if you find something different, use can use that app or another and take a photo and send it to an expert who can say what it is or if it's something new.”
No less an authority than Richard Louv is on board with the idea.
Louv jump-started the national debate about whether we're raising a generation of nature-deprived kids with his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” He is the founder and chairman emeritus of the Children and Nature Network.
In his book "The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age,” Louv argues that humans have been bringing technology into the outdoors for ages.
“A fishing rod is technology. So is that fancy backpack. Or a compass. Or a tent. When boomers my age ran through the woods with play guns (as distasteful as that might be to some people), they were using technology as an entry tool to nature,” Louv wrote. “Today the family that together goes geo-caching or wildlife photographing with their digital cameras or collecting pond samples, is doing something as legitimate as going fishing. Both involve gadgets that offer an excuse to get outside.”
Yes, any “gadget” can become an end in itself, and distract you from reality, wrote Louv. And, perhaps, he added, the test “of any nature-oriented getaway gadget should not be how focused the user becomes on the technology, but on how long it takes that person to put down the gadget, or become unaware of it, so they feel free to look away and use their own eyes and all the other senses.”
Some eco-app projects involve not just kids learning about something, but kids teaching others and together creating something that will educate others.
So it was with the Sewall Woods Trail Project
Joan Newkirk's third grade class at Bath Elementary, Monica Wright's seventh grade science students at Bath Middle School, and Becky Kolak of the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust created a digital interpretative guide to a section of the Sewall Woods Preserve Loop Trail, the first of its kind in the region.
The digital trail project, partially funded with an $861 grant from Project Learning Tree, was unveiled in mid-June. It uses so-called QR codes, those increasingly common square bar code-like things that, when scanned with your smartphone, take you to websites for additional information.
The third graders, whose curriculum includes a unit on the forest, researched trees at spots on the trail, and learned about bigger concepts, such as what a nurse stump is. Then they wrote up their findings. The seventh graders helped the younger kids with the final edit and added photos, most taken by the students. Newkirk said while it was a little difficult for the third graders to wrap their heads around what they were doing, they enjoyed working with the seventh graders. And they liked the final product.
For Newkirk, “combining a personal interest in being outside, getting kids outside and excited about nature is paramount.” She said the technology side of the Sewall Woods project helped do that. In the end the students had fun learning about the forest and spread the word about a “great, local natural resource.” Newkirk hopes to continue the project, next year, introducing a podcasting component, perhaps on the sensory aspects of the forest, with students recording their observations at nature trail stations.
Kuech, the USM professor, said that it's not about the technology, it's about making it exciting to learn about the natural world.
“We need to get children to go out into the woods and get to know that this device is a tool that can tell them things about nature,” he said.
As a boy, and an adult, out in the woods, Kuech said he had questions about everything. What was this caterpillar going to turn into? What type of fern is this? Nature apps have the capacity to satisfy that curiosity instantly. And, it shows kids that a smartphone isn't just for blasting text messages to their friends, but can connect them to nature, he said. “I think we need to show them how to do that, to make it exciting for them again, just the same as it was for you and me. We need to bring that excitement back to the kids. This has the potential to do that.”
Joe Rankin lives and writes in New Sharon.