Recently, The Arboretum at Penn State is deploying iBeacon technology to create an interactive learning between children, families and the plants around them. The trees, plants, rocks, and cave in the Arboretum are meant to “talk” to them.
The project lead by associate professors of education at Penn State, Susan Land and Heather Toomey Zimmerman, uses iBeacon technology to turn spaces like The Arboretum at Penn State into interactive places of learning for children and their families. The project funded by a Center for Online Innovation in Learning (COIL) Research Initiation Grant, was inspired by museums across the country — including the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State — that have been using iBeacons to enhance visitors’ experiences.
Land and Zimmerman created several “learning tours” of The Arboretum that are triggered by iBeacon. A tour called Tree Investigators teaches school-aged children about the different ways trees produce their seeds. Land and Zimmerman placed iBeacons in several species of trees — crabapple and pine trees, for example.
To connect iBeacon to the children’s mobile devices, they enlisted the help of Chris Millet, assistant director of Education Technology Services, who has helped to develop a Penn State Places app. The app will display notifications and information when they are close to certain beacon.
“I believe it’s important to offer technologies that are smarter and more intuitive,” said Millet. “My hope for technologies like iBeacon is to find new ways to ensure students spend their time learning, with technology as a tool to support them and not distract them.”
Land’s group used the Tree Investigators program in April with a group of 9- to 10-year olds and more recently in August with a group of 6- to 10-year-olds.
When the children opened the Penn State Places App to use the Tree Investigators program, a map of The Arboretum appeared with circles indicating where the iBeacons were located. As the children explored The Arboretum, a dotted line would surround the circle of the closest Beacon, letting the user know they could click it to get more information.
Land and Zimmerman also placed iBeacons by limestone boulders and inside a model cave for another tour they created for the Children’s Garden, which explores the relationship between land and water in the Centre County region. Because the beacons are so small, children often didn’t notice them, creating the illusion that they were interacting directly with the landscape. This project created an engaging and interactive experience, where children could learn by playing, exploring, and recognizing and applying concepts along the way.
“Mobile technology has challenged traditional ways of thinking about learning spaces as being bound to a classroom,” said Land. “We wanted to focus on using technology to move learning out of classrooms and into community spaces by helping people notice and observe new things scientifically within their community.”
Land says the group observed children who were surprised about the new things they were learning, like one child who was surprised that pine cones start out very small and hold its tree’s seeds. Zimmerman hopes the technology will enable not just for children, but also for their families.
“Learning with your family is a powerful way for parents and children to understand new things — all while having fun,” said Zimmerman. “Families can follow any topic that interests the family as a whole or individual members. So family learning is one important way that children and adults interested in science can learn more.”
And getting more kids interested in science is a major goal not just of Land and Zimmerman, but also educators across the country.
“We see a distinct opportunity to support science learning informally by cultivating interests of youth and families during their time together in natural settings,” said Land.
iBeacon certainly sparked conversation, fun and learning beneath the trees for those who might become the next generation of scientists and philosophers.