Data collection and navigation apps for tablets and smart phones are now being used in natural resources classes at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
The apps are used in forestry, soils and wildlife classes for recording information, sharing data and maneuvering in the field and were tested last winter and incorporated into the College of Natural Resources’ Field Techniques.
Kevin Burns, Treehaven Forest Ecologist, pushed to integrate these apps into the summer program and said the students who attended the program at Treehaven in 2015 were some of the first students in the country to use this technology in a classroom setting.
“I think we’re at a turning point right now,” Burns said. “This is early, early technology.”
Data recording and navigation equipment is not new, but the idea of performing professional-grade fieldwork by using consumer-grade equipment is. Purpose-built data recorders and GPS equipment are expensive and complicated, involving clunky operating systems and storage methods.
“It’s complex, you need a ton of training to use it,” Burns said.
The apps are much more intuitive for students to learn and are extremely functional, he said, and nearly every student and faculty member already has a personal smart phone which can download and utilize the free tools.
“We were blown away by how easy it is,” Burns said. “I’m getting phone calls weekly about this.”
The CNR purchased 20 iPads and fully-waterproof cases during the summer programs to improve the devices’ durability. Each unit also had a $100 wireless antennae which provided accuracy comparable to specialized units in the $1,000 range.
Several problems arose with the apps and iPads during the first few weeks of the summer, causing stress, confusion and reducing students’ faith in the technology. Login issues, a poor internet connection and a suite of app bugs made using the apps a chore but were eventually resolved.
“It was a scary couple of weeks,” Burns said. “It works flawlessly now.”
Joel Gebhard, junior, attended the first session at Treehaven and spent the second session working as a teacher’s assitant for Dr. Jacob Prater’s soils class. Gebhard used the app to map soils in Prader’s class and also mapped trails and section corners for Burns.
Gebhard preferred to use the Trimble field computer because it was more reliable, though he enjoyed the apps.
“What I liked most about the app was how easy it was to use,” Gebhard said. “This was all really new to me.”
Gebhard plans to keep working with both technologies because the apps have not yet gained widespread popularity.
“Just the fact that you can go out and take the same data with a smart phone or iPad that a $1000 unit can is crazy,” Gebhard said. “I can definitely see it taking over and being used a lot.”
Dr. Shelli Dubay, associate professor of wildlife, used an iPad app in her wildlife class at Treehaven that allowed students to record locations of small mammal traps and input data from a given trapping outing. The data was instantaneously shared with classmates in a cloud-based storage system for interpretation and students could view a map on their devices showing trap locations and related information.
“It was pretty darn cool,” Dubay said. “The app helps give a visual of what areas are hot and what’s not.”
Using the app in her class has increased the efficiency of recording and updating trapping information for the Department of Natural Resources.
“There are so many different places for error to occur,” Dubay said of alternative data-gathering technology. “This made it simpler.”
Dr. Mike Demchik, professor of forestry, offered his soils students the opportunity to use an iPad app, which allows pdf files to be used as maps in addition to recording data. He also made self-guided plant walks available for the plant identification course using the same app on smart phones.
“They could go do their own plant walks using a cell phone,” Demchik said. “This actually lets them fit it in when they have time.”
It is likely that resource managers will gravitate toward this technology given its affordability and efficiency, Demchik said. He has seen iPads mounted on four-wheelers used for agricultural applications and thinks their use will continue.
The university may eventually provide students with software to run on personal devices rather than continuing to invest in new hardware. Faculty have shown interest in making this technology a part of their courses, which Burns said is a positive sign, since introducing new things to a large group of people can be intimidating.
“Will they know everything right away?” Burns said. “No, but they’re trying.”
Demchik emphasized the remarkable speed at which computing technology continues to progress. He recalled his first long distance phone call as a child, believing he needed to yell into the phone for his voice to be heard.
“That’s cool because what you can do now on your smart phone is now as powerful as the best computers in the world at that time,” Demchik said.