Jennifer Chaffin

GeoJourney student Jennifer Chaffin works with information on her iPod to complete an assignment in the field.

GeoJourney students use iPods to enhance learning

A field-based geology course offered by BGSU has harnessed the technological power of the Apple iPod to the study of the Earth’s ancient beginnings.

GeoJourney, the nine-week trip across the United States for Bowling Green undergraduates, uses every function of the small but mighty device to boost students’ understanding of physical/historical geology, American and Native American culture studies, environmental studies and even critical thinking.

Dr. Joe Elkins, director of GeoJourney, said he believes his program is the first to maximize all the iPod’s capabilities. “I see it as the next frontier. We have classroom-based and Web-based teaching. Now we can use the iPod as well. It supports the broadest range of course materials and offers complete portability.”

The iPod is especially suited to meet the needs of GeoJourney, which, because it is conducted in an outdoor environment, comes with special challenges in the presentation of course material. Geology is a field in which the ability to visualize topography and “not only how the earth looks today but its evolution is a key element,” Elkins said. There are many effective visual aids available, but they could not be used on GeoJourney until the iPod was brought into the course.

Turning wasted time into educational time
The class travels in vans from coast to coast, using parklands and cities to conduct interdisciplinary field investigations. The itinerary is designed to give students first-hand experience in a wide range of geographic environments.

Danielle Keeler studies course material on her iPod
Danielle Keeler studies course material on her iPod while en route to the next site on the 2006 GeoJourney.

Some projects require several days of fieldwork and project reports or maps. At night, campfire lectures and discussions, along with reading assignments and written exams, enhance the educational experience.

But the time spent traveling from place to place was a problem. “We wanted to turn that wasted time into educational time,” Elkins said. He had experimented with using a screen in one of the vans to show instructional videos and with using a microphone to broadcast lectures to the three vans, but the process was cumbersome.

And though each student has an extensive resource book of written materials, there was the problem of carsickness for some, limiting even the reading that could be done en route. The iPod audio files functioned much like books on tape, offering another avenue for learning.

An “ah-ha” moment
A revelation came at Christmas 2005 in an Atlanta Apple store, where Elkins’ sister-in-law introduced him to the iPod and its potential applications for teaching. “I began to see that we could take this and really run with it,” Elkins said.

Upon his return to Bowling Green, Elkins and his assistants began converting instructional videos and documentaries to .mp4 files, PowerPoint-assisted lectures to podcasts, figures and images to .jpg files, audio CDs to .mp3 files and Microsoft Word documents to .txt files. And all were loaded onto the iPods in preparation for the next class.

That was how each member of this fall’s GeoJourney cohort came to be provided with a fifth-generation, 60-gigabyte iPod, complete with a small harness and 9-volt charger. The vans were outfitted with cigarette lighters for each seat for plugging the chargers into.

The students, well acquainted with the iPod, took to it immediately, Elkins said.

“You want students to be interested in the material and exposing themselves to it as much as possible,” he said. “Field trips are most effective when students know why they are going and are prepared for what they should be looking for.”

Caitlin Rex, a sophomore Honors Program student from Bowling Green, said having the iPods enhanced the overall experience of GeoJourney. “It was a nice way to get the information across and an alternative to reading. There is a great deal of reading with the course, and the iPod provided a variation on that.”

“One of the advantages of the iPods is they offer the ability to replay lectures or videos,” Elkins said. Students can review sections they need more work with and do additional exercises if need be. “It puts them more in control of their learning,” he said.

Using the new to study the old
An unusual juxtaposition of eras took place early in the trip last fall when, in a study of the importance of the buffalo to all aspects of Plains Indians’ lives, students were called on to skin a buffalo and tan its hide, working with obsidian knives and the animal’s brain matter in the ancient style of the Indians in South Dakota. Neither Elkins nor his wife, Nichole, co-director of GeoJourney, had any experience in this area so they were in the same position as the students.

In preparation for the novel experience, they and the students watched a video on their iPods of two Oglala Sioux performing the task. “It really gave us a better idea of what to expect and how to go about it,” Elkins said.

Recordings of Native American music on the iPods provided another dimension to the study, along with video of traditional ceremonies.

En route to Louisiana,students were able to view materials about the topography of New Orleans and the impact of Hurricane Katrina before they arrived in the city. After a geological tour, they used software on their iPods to create contour maps of the area of the sort city planners would use to plan future development based on geological features.

The exercise “gave them a wider view of the situation and the relationship of humans to the environment,” Elkins said.

Similarly, during an eight-hour drive to Seattle, students were able to study materials on Mount St. Helens.

“The videos were probably the most helpful part for me,” Rex said. “They were a good way to prepare for the day.”

The students didn’t use the iPods only while traveling or in their tents at night. The Elkinses developed several special iPod-based exercises to do while at the actual sites. For these, students wore their iPods on their arms in their special holsters.

Studying critical thinking with the iPod
Because GeoJourney takes place away from campus and many of its students are also in the Honors Program, it was difficult for those students to take the program’s required critical thinking class. Again, the iPod was called into use.

With the help of senior Bethany Nanamaker, a member of the IMPACT learning community who has extensively studied critical thinking, Elkins created a series of podcasts using a PowerPoint presentation and recorded lectures to deliver the curriculum. Students applied the skills they were learning to analyze selected articles from the GeoJourney resource book from a critical thinking standpoint.

Rex said the iPods worked especially well for the course. “Joe recorded the lectures, and the slides highlighted everything. It was really nice and very helpful in getting all the concepts,” she said.

Her opinion was shared by the others, according to Elkins. “The students all reported their experience with the critical thinking course was very positive.”

Enthusiastic response, increasing applications
Even though GeoJourney has been going successfully for several years, this year’s group using the iPod all said they could not imagine the course without it, Elkins said.

And when the Elkinses presented “iTool or iToy?: The Use of iPod on a Field-Based Introductory Geology Course,” last October at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America, “most of the geology professors we talked to saw it not only as something just for field-based trips, but for classrooms as well,” Elkins said.

“The iPod gives us different ways to learn,” Rex summed up.

January 15, 2007