XIX.4 July + August 2012
Page: 76
Digital Citation

Pervasive science

Chris Quintana

Imagine for a moment that your science classes could have burst through the walls of your school. Imagine investigating science questions with tools that let you capture dinosaurs, visit Thomas Edison’s lab or the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and gather data from different climates or ecosystems—and then recording those experiences and using them to develop a scientific presentation for your peers, teachers, and parents.

We have not quite created a time/space machine that can send students back in time or to far-flung locations, but students do have access to a vast range of real-world experiences and information, whether in school, in museums and parks, or in their homes and everyday lives. From an educational perspective, the question remains: How can we help students integrate those life experiences and that information into richer, more seamless learning opportunities?

In our Zydeco project, we are exploring these scenarios by integrating the growing power and functionality of mobile devices (e.g., smartphones and tablets), with the pervasive information access from cloud technologies. We are working with middle school science teachers, students, and museum educators to develop the notion of pervasive science, integrating work in science classrooms with museum visits and other out-of-class experiences to provide students with broader opportunities for scientific thinking and problem solving. Zydeco supports engagement in the kind of active scientific practices described by major science education standards (e.g., [1]). Teachers guide and provide structure for students to develop questions, plan a science investigation, gather and analyze data, and use that work to develop a scientific explanation that addresses the questions being explored. The goal is to have students learn both science content and process by having them actively engage in scientific inquiry.

There have been other classroom-based efforts to develop and enact inquiry-based curricula supported with technology (e.g., [2]), as well as “citizen science” activities outside the classroom, where people work together to explore interesting scientific questions. But regardless of the context, scientific inquiry requires a functional and supportive framework that incorporates the range of tools needed to conduct a science investigation (e.g., digital cameras, data probes, visualization tools) along with scaffolding, the assistance provided to students by more knowledgeable agents to help them mindfully engage in tasks just outside their reach. With Zydeco, we are exploring how the cloud and mobile devices can provide functionality and scaffolding to support scientific inquiry in multiple contexts and help students manage the inquiry process, be reflective thinkers, and make sense of the work they are doing and the products they are generating. Mobile devices provide a platform on which students can conduct their investigations inside and outside the classroom, and the cloud provides a mechanism for more pervasive access to the artifacts and information that students work with. This creates a richer learning context by helping students use and integrate their experiences and the information they find inside and outside of the classroom.

Zydeco Overview

Zydeco is in the second year of a three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation. Our partners include schools in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our museum partners include the University of Michigan (UM) Natural History Museum, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Detroit Science Center. We have developed tools for the Web and the iOS platform (iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad), along with pilot curricular activities that incorporate classroom science topics with experiences and artifacts found at our partner museums.

The Zydeco system currently has three main components. We have discussed Zydeco in recent presentations at the CHI and Interaction Design and Children conferences; here, we summarize these components and the corresponding student activity.

Zydeco/Setup. Teachers and students start a project with classroom discussions that incorporate the Web-based Zydeco/Setup component (for computer or iPad Web browsers) to establish their investigation questions. In our trials thus far, students have explored biology and physics projects such as “Design a super-animal that could live in the Michigan area during the Cretaceous Period,” and “Design a way to use the museum exhibits to create electrical energy to charge your phone.” These projects connect with our teachers’ curricular activities and the exhibits of the particular museum being visited. Students discuss questions relevant to their investigation (e.g., internal and external biological traits or how electricity can be generated and harnessed) with their teachers and enter all of this information on their investigation webpages.

Student investigations also incorporate the notion of scientific data. To represent this data, students and teachers co-create data tags that they enter on their webpages. For example, in the “super-animal” project, teachers and students create data tags for the different traits they may be interested in, such as “runs fast,” “has camouflage,” “eats plants,” “lays eggs,” and so on. Data tags for the electricity project could include types of energy they see being generated by components of the museum exhibits, such as thermal energy, kinetic energy, pressure, magnets, and so on. Finally, students can add information to their webpages, such as hypotheses they may want to pose or other information they may already have about their topics. The investigation webpage information is then all saved to the cloud for the students’ later field work.

Zydeco/Collect. After setting up the investigation, students collect data in various locations outside the classroom (e.g., schoolyard, parks, and museums) using the Zydeco/Collect component on the iPhone/iPod Touch. When they begin a field trip, students log in to their devices to review the information they entered on their webpages in class. Students then roam the museum or field site looking at different exhibits for information relevant to their investigation and collect this data, primarily as photos, but also as videos, audio notes, and text notes (Figure 1).

For example, in the UM Natural History Museum students gather data for their super-animal by looking for different animal traits they think would be useful for the animal they are designing. In the Detroit Science Center and Henry Ford Museum, students look for and document ideas from the exhibits they think could help generate electricity. Note, however, that this component goes beyond using a regular digital camera by incorporating scaffolding to structure data collection. For example, when students take an animal-trait photo, Zydeco prompts them to title and annotate the object with an associated audio or text note. Students also add data tags to photos, either from their classroom set or by creating a new tag on the spot. The goal is to support not just data collection, but more mindful data collection—it’s not just doing, it’s thinking about the doing by going beyond just collecting to reflect via tags and other annotations.

In each of these cases, students move around the museum at a hectic, excited pace, viewing exhibits, but within a larger context in which they are actively fact finding and sense making, and documenting those experiences. When the students’ field work is complete, their data and annotations are stored locally on their devices and then synced to their cloud accounts for later access.

Zydeco/Explain. When students return to class, they review and synthesize the data they collected to create a scientific explanation that addresses their question. In our initial trials with these investigations, we did not have a specialized component to support constructing explanations. Instead, students reviewed the data they collected and then created posters for their explanations (Figure 2). Student posters described either the super-animal they designed from their animal traits or an electricity-generation device they created from the different aspects observed in the museum exhibits. In each case, students used the data from their fieldwork to provide the rationale for their designs.

During this activity, we began to see areas where students needed scaffolding to develop explanations that had a more coherent scientific structure. The emergence of tablets encouraged us to develop a new “explanation construction” component (Zydeco/Explain) that moves beyond tools like text editors to include support based on a conceptual “claims-evidence-reasoning” framework used in science education [3]. This new iPad-based component is being tested by students (Figure 2), who can review their field data on the iPad (which connects to their cloud accounts), create claims that make assertions addressing their questions, and connect data they think serves as evidence for those claims. As they select evidence, they provide the reasoning for why the selected evidence supports their claims. By developing and reviewing different claims, students incrementally build an explanation that they can ultimately present to their teachers and classmates.

We continue to develop and revise Zydeco with our teachers and museum partners, and to date more than 400 students from Detroit and Ypsilanti have used the system. Overall, the project is helping us see how these technologies can help students personalize and connect their learning with the range of experiences in their world. We see how mobile technologies enrich learning by allowing students to do scientific work in multiple contexts, reducing the rigidity of boundaries between different contexts and thus increasing the contextual permeability between classroom and out-of-class contexts. We also see how pervasive cloud storage increases contextual transference, allowing students to access different aspects of their classroom discussions (e.g., questions and hypotheses, data tags, etc.) to guide their work outside the classroom, and transfer information gathered outside the classroom back to the classroom to enrich their learning experiences there.

Of course, we do not pitch this or any educational technology as a panacea. Tools like Zydeco provide opportunities for teachers and students, but those opportunities also require corresponding curricular connections, plus teacher time and resources to help them use those technologies. We are exploring Zydeco with an eye to the future, thinking about how these technologies can shape learning, as well as the educational opportunities we can create for students and the pragmatic requirements for educators to make these visions a reality. While we are cognizant of “digital divide” issues, we cannot let those issues dictate and destroy the potential visions that arise as new technologies emerge. If we want to see how these technologies affect students and educators, we need to create new scenarios now to understand how we can make these visions a reality. Zydeco is our push in that direction, to expand learning opportunities and allow students to integrate the richness of the world inside and outside of the classroom.


The Zydeco development team and alumni include Joseph Krajcik, Alissa Ampezzan, Clara Cahill, Ibrahim Delen, Alex Kuhn, Wan-Tzu Lo, Brenna McNally, Alex Migicovsky, Alex Pompe, Shannon Schmoll, Claire Spafford, and Kyle Stewart.

We are grateful to our University of Michigan collaborators at the Museum of Natural History, Museum Studies Program, and Digital Media Commons. We are also grateful to our collaborators at the Henry Ford Museum, the Detroit Science Center, The Learning Partnership, and our public school partners in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor. Special thanks to the University of Michigan GROCS program and the National Science Foundation for their financial support. This material is based on work supported by NSF Grant No. DRL-1020027. Any opinions and findings expressed here are the authors and do not reflect those of the NSF.


1. National Research Council. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2012.

2. Songer, N.B. BioKIDS: An animated conversation on the development of complex reasoning in science. The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. R.K. sawyer, ed. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, 355–370.

3. McNeill, K.L. and Krajcik, J. Supporting Grade 5–8 Students in Constructing Explanations in Science: The Claim, Evidence, and Reasoning Framework for Talk and Writing. Allyn & Bacon, Boston, 2011


Chris Quintana is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Michigan and a principal investigator with the Center for Highly Interactive Classrooms, Curricula, and Computing in Education (hi-ce). His background is in human-computer interaction and computer science, which he applies to learning technologies.


F1Figure 1. Students use the Zydeco/Collect component in museums to capture animal traits and document their observations about generating electricity.

F2Figure 2. Students review their field data and information to create their final scientific explanations on paper (here, a diagram for the electricity question), or now (right) by using the iPad-based Zydeco/Explain component to develop a structured scientific explanation that addresses the questions they are investigating.

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