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Biologist and students develop iPad nature app in National Science Foundation-funded project

November 15, 2013

Loyola University New Orleans biologist Aimée K. Thomas, Ph.D., is helping college students teach younger children the wonders of nature through an iPad app they helped create. The fruit of their labor, the iPad app “GO to Lake Thoreau,” is now available free in the iTunes app store.

The National Science Foundation is funding Thomas’ project to use innovative technology to prepare college students-turned naturalists to teach middle-school children. Thomas received the two-year $250,000 grant from the National Science Foundation through the Informal Science Education initiative.

While most would agree that children these days spend more time on iPads and smart phones than they do outside exploring nature, Thomas is using that to her advantage.

“The idea is that more and more children are comfortable sitting inside with some sort of technology in their hands and less and less comfortable exploring nature and learning about science,” Thomas said. “So we are researching how students learn science concepts while hiking around a nature preserve with an iPad in hand.”

That nature preserve is the Lake Thoreau Center, more than 100 acres of pristine land located in Hattiesburg, Miss. “GO to Lake Thoreau” offers visitors a fun way to tour the property and learn about the natural landscape, plant life and animals.

After the first year of research, Thomas and her team are witnessing a breakthrough. The students are getting more comfortable outside and using the iPads less, according to Thomas. “This is what we hoped, but isn’t necessarily what we expected,” she said.

The grant was submitted when Thomas was part of the faculty at the University of Southern Mississippi and is being conducted with Kristy Halverson, Ph.D., a biology professor at the University of Southern Mississippi. They hope to continue their funding and expand their reach into the New Orleans area, studying similar concepts in an urban setting.

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