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Updated 5:00 PM October 25, 2005




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GeoPocket: A classroom tool for the GameBoy generation

Keeping students alert and engaged is a constant challenge for professors who teach large lecture courses. Even when the lecturer is a dynamic speaker and the presentation is peppered with compelling images and demonstrations, students mostly are passive listeners.
Pocket PCs have become a valuable learning tool in Global Change I and Extreme Weather courses. Students can access information that relates to what the professor is teaching and also give the instructor direct feedback. (Photo courtesy Benjamin Van Der Pluijm)

Not so in University classes where the GeoPocket project is underway. Students in Global Change I and Extreme Weather courses use wireless Pocket PCs (handheld computers) or their personal laptops to manipulate data, respond to professors' queries and explore maps, diagrams and photos, all while class is going on.

"In a way, we're trying to integrate laboratory experiences into the classroom environment without taking up the entire class," says Ben van der Pluijm, professor of geological sciences and of the environment, who developed the GeoPocket with Perry Samson, professor of atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, and Peter Knoop, a School of Information research investigator.

The instructional team presented the project Oct.17 at a meeting of the Geological Society of America in Salt Lake City.

The teaching tool is ideal for students who are used to spending leisure hours playing hand-held computer games, listening to music on MP3 players and text-messaging their friends, van der Pluijm says.

"The kids using this are accustomed to technology, and they're accustomed to multitasking—they can interact with things and listen at the same time," he says. "This is a way for them to play with the material that's being presented in class. But it's not just play; they're learning something in the process."

Using handheld computers in the classroom isn't new. Other devices have been used as "clickers" to allow students to respond to simple yes/no or multiple-choice questions and then compare their answers with those of classmates. But GeoPocket applications add new dimensions, quite literally, by making use of spatial information.

For example, if van der Pluijm is discussing why the Earth is colder in northern areas than around the equator and explaining that it has to do with the angle at which sunlight strikes the planet, students can fiddle with an animated diagram, dragging a cartoon flashlight to make it shine on a surface at different angles. As they drag the flashlight, the solution to an equation that describes the relationship shows the effect.

In another GeoPocket exercise, van der Pluijm asks students to point out, on a map on their screens, the primary sources of the world's oil supply. Their answers are recorded centrally, and the students can click on "Show All Answers" to see their classmates' responses. The answers also can be projected for the whole class to see. The professor can use that information as a jumping off point for a class discussion.

"You can point out that they're right or wrong, but better yet, it's the perfect platform to explore the topic at hand," van der Pluijm says. "You can also pose a question and tell the students to talk to their neighbors before they answer, so that you encourage them to interact with one another."

The students' responses also alert the professor to points the class doesn't understand. "It gives you a sense of what registers and what does not, and it allows you to change gears while you're right there in class," van der Pluijm says.

Class participation and attendance increase when students use the interactive devices, van der Pluijm says. "That may be related to the fact that we keep track of who answers questions, and the students know that we're keeping track. But the bottom line is that you learn more by being in class than not being in class, and we think this is a complementary way for them to experience the material."

In June, the U-M team received $125,000 in equipment from the Hewlett-Packard Company for the GeoPocket project, as part of the 2005 HP Technology for Teaching Leadership grant program and a grant from the National Science Foundation's Geoscience Education program. In addition, LSA recently remodeled a classroom in Angell Hall to accommodate the wireless technology and awarded a grant for technical support.

The first classes to use the handhelds began in early September. Van der Pluijm, Samson and Knoop hope to expand their use into other large lecture courses, such as introductory natural science courses and classes in other disciplines that would benefit from spatial data analysis, such as anthropology and sociology.

They've demonstrated the system around campus and gotten enthusiastic responses, for example, from faculty in the Medical School, who use images such as MRIs and X-rays in their teaching.

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