Using iPads In Scientific Fieldwork

In Earth Science, fieldwork represents a significant learning opportunity – it contextualises much of the theory taught in class, and engages students in the scientific processes of collecting and organising observational data.  This year, the limitations of traditional methods – pencil, paper and digital camera – were removed through the use of iPads and the Numbers app.

Traditionally, while engaging in fieldwork, students made handwritten notes and drawings. More recent classes have taken photos with cameras / phones and then, after the excursion, labelled these images in Word or something similar. The biggest drawbacks of these techniques have been illegible or poorly sequenced notes, and inaccuracies in image labels due to time delays between fieldwork and accessing a computer.

This year, each of my students took their iPad 2 into the field, using it as the main tool for collecting and organising observations.  This resulted in significant improvements.

Prior to the excursion, I created a Numbers document with a sheet for each location.  Each sheet included multiple tables for observational data.  The fact that Numbers allows multiple, independent tables increased flexibility and improved ease of use – there was no need to worry about the impact inserting rows or columns would have on other tables. 

Numbers document blank
The data template created in Numbers

At each location, the students observed the geological features and immediately made their notes. Typing on the split on-screen keyboard using thumbs is surprisingly efficient.  No more poor handwriting!  The students were also able to quickly reorganise their data by dragging rows, columns or whole tables, if needed. No more “this is meant to be over there” annotations that plagued paper-based data. 

I asked my students to take photos of all the significant rocks and structures using their iPad’s camera.  They inserted and positioned indicative photos in their Numbers document, and then added labels.  In one location, for example, we studied a cutting that demonstrates micro folding of meta-sediments.  The students were able to identify fold axes and immediately draw these on their images.  Another great advantage of using iPads in the field was that the students were able to immediately confirm the accuracy and quality of their images by ‘pinch zooming’.  If needed, they could take another photo immediately.  Images could be scaled and cropped as required. It was also possible to capture and insert video to communicate the geological and environmental context of specific locations.

Completed data
Data recorded by a student

In addition to a deeper level of engagement, the most significant benefit of this process was that there was no need for the students to re-write or re-organise their data at a later time. The data quality was much higher because the risk of corruption during revision had been avoided. The data gathered using the iPads was in a form that we could rely on and readily access in class.

[As an aside, one of my students forgot to download the Numbers document from our learning management system prior to the excursion. I was able to use my iPhone as a hotspot so the student could access the file; no time lost, no hassle.]

Chris Blundell