Students dig deep into soil science with mobile game

By Corey Allen posted on August 11th, 2015


Armed with iPhones, dozens of first and second-year students walk into the forest at the University of British Columbia. The students are on a scientific quest to better understand the ground beneath them; learning about soil by playing a mobile game.

It’s no Candy Crush, but the game is an innovative attempt to teach soil science, a field of study not typically known for creating frenzy amongst students. It’s also an example of flexible learning, academic-speak for switching up the traditional lecture and teaching subjects in new ways, often with the help of technology.

“Most of my students are from a generation of mobile users, so they still get to use their beloved devices while they learn about the forest floor and the importance of soil,” said Maja Krzic, a soil scientist cross-appointed in UBC’s faculty of forestry and the faculty of land and food systems. “It’s a brilliant teaching trick.”

Using smartphone GPS, the game (called the Forest Humus Forms Quest) directs students to find different types of soil and plants in the forest. Along the way, they must answer a series of questions (for example: What plant structures are responsible for the mixing of the organic and mineral horizons at this site?) They receive points for each correct answer, eventually logged onto a scoreboard shared by the class.

Students who complete the quest receive a bonus mark for one-third of a lab assignment. It’s a miniscule increase to their overall grade but Krzic said the students who do play the game find it worthwhile.

“Students come to appreciate the beauty of the science a lot more,” said Krzic. “The game creates a sense of exploration and discovery not usually found through a traditional lecture.”

Krzic developed the game for the course she teaches, Introduction to Soil Science, with help from land and food systems researcher Julie Wilson, graduate student Darrell Hoffman and 14Oranges Software Inc., based in Richmond, B.C.

In the course, students learn about the physical, biological and chemical properties of soil. Krzic hopes they will walk away from the course knowing how to classify different soil types, among other things. This is where the mobile game can help students learn and retain the course content more easily.