The shift: Students explore soil science through mobile app
Dr. Maja Krzic knows that soil science isn’t familiar territory for many students. The last thing she wants is to make it seem dull or uninteresting. In her course, APBI 200, Krzic is embracing multimedia—including a mobile scavenger hunt game—to provide her students with an interactive and memorable learning experience.
“Soils help moderate global temperatures, store carbon, and can preserve records of past climates,” Krzic explains. “Soil is a precious natural resource that has significant interactions with Earth’s climate system. As global issues such as climate change and food security continue to place increasing demands on soil resources, the need to provide soil science education to the next generation of natural resource managers and members of the general public is becoming more imminent.”
In APBI 200, students learn about soil properties, formation, classification, use, and conservation. Classifying soils can be especially difficult, as different soils contain subtle distinctions. This can make soil science a challenging topic to teach and learn.
In a typical soil classification lab, instructors bring in soil samples they want students to observe. “You show them various important clues that they have to be able to see,” Krzic explains, “but these clues are very subtle. It’s not enough to give students materials to read about or provide them with photos.”
Krzic knew that students needed visual repetition to learn the material. She decided to apply for flexible learning funding to develop a resource website and series of videos. A year after Krzic applied for funding, she implemented another innovative idea—a mobile game, which would lead students to different sites across campus.
Using Questogo, a free mobile app that allows users to create self-guided tours, Krzic created a game for her students called the Forest Humus Forms Quest. The game or “quest” is similar to a scavenger hunt. Using a GPS-enabled iPhone, students are directed to two predetermined locations at the UBC Farm. They are asked a series of questions along the way, and they gain points for each correct answer.
The app, created by 14Oranges Software Inc., based in Richmond, B.C., is designed for users to create their own self-guided tours. People have created tours for sites around Vancouver, and for attractions like the Museum of Anthropology. As Krzic saw, the app can also be used as an innovative way to engage students and enhance learning.
The app is customizable and allows users to upload photos, videos, and background information to their quests. Krzic utilized this feature and uploaded resources that would help refresh students’ memories before answering the questions. Students were also encouraged to play the quest more than once, so they could better understand the material, as well as improve their score.
“By doing a self-guided learning tour, students confirm the knowledge they obtain in the lab and through watching the videos posted on the website,” Krzic said. “This is independent self-guided learning.”
With new funding secured through the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF), Krzic and her team worked with 14Oranges to improve the app so it was more suited to her teaching purposes. One notable change was the addition of a live scoreboard. Students, who could work in teams, could see who was currently in the lead—an added level of competition that students seemed to enjoy.
The quest was optional, and bonus points were awarded to those who completed the game. Krzic was pleasantly surprised with the participation level. Students were asked to complete the activity on their own time, which took roughly two hours. Out of 230 students, nearly half of the class completed the activity.
Krzic wanted to give her students a variety of ways to learn. She supplemented in-class lessons with online resources and videos that students could review on their own time, giving students more flexibility in their learning.
To create informative videos, Krzic brought on Dr. Margaret Schmidt, a colleague from Simon Fraser University, who has done extensive research on forest floor identification. Schmidt starred in the videos alongside graduate student Darrell Hoffman, who worked on evaluating the effectiveness of the forest floor educational material. Together, the two explain the nuances of different soils in both a lab and forest setting.
In a course with such a high level of enrolment, Krzic saw the importance of integrating different ways of teaching.
“When you have a large group of students, you really have to provide them with numerous options on how they will reach that learning [objective],” Krzic says. “For some [students], traditional lecture and note taking is the way to go, and it’s fine—I do some of that. For others, it’s using iPhones. I do that too. Others prefer to have materials online, so I post all my course materials on UBC Wiki.”
Soil science is a discipline that isn’t restrained to a laboratory. By giving students the opportunity to explore the forest floor, they can take what they learned in-class and through online resources, into real life. Since soil can often look different in field settings, as compared to lab settings, it was also advantageous for students to observe soil and the forest floor in forest ecosystems.
Krzic notes that APBI 200 is many students’ first introduction to soil science as a discipline, and she is likely the first soil scientist that they meet. Krzic hopes that her methods of teaching will make soil science a discipline that students find exciting, and one they will continue to pursue.
“If you think about why you ended up in a certain discipline, it’s usually some teacher that made a difference,” Krzic said. “You have to inspire them.”
Even if her students don’t pursue soil science further, given the disciplines that her students are in, Krzic hopes that they will at least have a better understanding of how to manage and sustain the land.
“[These] are usually students from Forestry, Land and Food Systems, or Science. For all of them, it’s essential that they have at least a basic understanding of soil principles. If you expose them to outdated ways of teaching, you are sending them a message that the material you are covering is stale, boring, or irrelevant. And that’s not what I want to do,” Krzic said.
One of the main goals for Krzic is to make learning a memorable experience for students. She first received TLEF funding in 2003, during her first year at UBC. With the funding, Krzic developed SoilWeb, an interactive web-based teaching tool to help students understand fundamental concepts and processes of soil science. Since then, Krzic has taken on a number of educational projects, including establishing the Virtual Soil Science Learning Resources Consortium, a national educational group of scientists, students, and multimedia experts.
Krzic will continue to use the videos and mobile game in future terms of APBI 200. She is also looking at other ways she can incorporate blended learning into her courses.
“I’m revisiting my existing labs, and based on what I learned from this project, I’m thinking about how I can improve other components of my course—either labs or lectures. For example, it would be exciting to bring a citizen science approach to teaching soil science by opening avenues through which students will be able to directly contribute to the course material.”
Krzic also points out that she isn’t disregarding traditional ways of teaching, which may be useful for certain topics. Rather, she sees the importance of identifying the best method of teaching for each given learning objective, and updating ways of teaching as necessary. “There are so many topics that can be covered in an exciting and meaningful way through innovative ways of teaching,” she said.
Dr. Maja Krzic is an Associate Professor of Soil Sciences in the Faculties of Land and Food Systems and Forestry at UBC. Her research interests include soil quality assessments under different land uses and the application of information technology and multimedia in soil science education. For her innovative efforts in teaching, Krzic has received the UBC Killam Teaching Award (2006), North American Colleges and Teachers of Agriculture Teaching Award of Merit (2006), Soil Science for Society Award by the Canadian Society of Soil Science (2012), and Mentoring Award by the Association for Women Soil Scientists, Soil Science Society of America (2013).