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Outdoor education and tech: Augmented reality

In a world of ever-present technology, few can agree on how much time children need on their devices. Some suggest that kids should spend more time outside instead. For kids in Colorado, a new collaboration between land management agencies and municipalities has found a way to get kids outside, even if they bring their phones.

Dinosaur Hill is the site where in 1901 the fossil of a 70 foot long Apatosaurus was uncovered by paleontologist Elmer Riggs and his team. Due to hazardous conditions, the expedition was forced to abandon the dig and the tail of the dinosaur deep inside of the hill.

I’m standing at the Dinosaur Hill trailhead in Fruita, Colorado.
But before I begin my hike this morning, I pull out my cellphone. I shade the screen from glare with my hand, and tap the latest app. Words appear on the screen, “Your adventure is about to begin…” Scrolling down, I select the pre-downloaded mission titled “Discover Dinosaurs”. My location is marked with a green arrow on a satellite map, a dinosaur avatar appears on the screen, and a voice casts over my earbuds…

"Hello, my name is Agent Al. Welcome to my dig site. I am an Allosaurus, but my friends call me Big Al. My family, the dinosaurs, roamed these lands for millions of years, and now their remains are the fossils that tell stories about Earth's history and ancient life. I work with the Bureau of Land Management to study and preserve these resources, but we need help to accomplish our mission.
I am inviting you to discover dinosaurs and help the Bureau of Land Management preserve fossils. Come on in. Together, we can learn about paleontology on our public lands."

All over the state, the Colorado Explorer Campaign offers similar such “missions” for young park visitors to complete. The Discover Dinosaurs mission is for the Bureau of Land Management, and is meant to educate young explorers on the basics of paleontology, and how to preserve fossils. 
However, this isn’t just an informational audio tour or a highly-detailed pamphlet.
The Agents of Discovery app infuses outdoor education with Augmented Reality, generally defined as an interactive experience combining real world input with digitally-accessed content. 
Similar to the popular Augmented Reality game Pokemon Go, families can use the Agents of Discovery app as they hike, and encounter information or activities along the way. 
Outside in the summer sun, I’ve done just that…

"So, I'm seeing some little challenges pop up. I think it knows where I'm supposed to be. Oh, they're just little, they're question marks, because I'm not close enough to them. Okay, I see the challenge has appeared. I get three bees as a reward for this challenge.
'Fossils are rare and irreplaceable resources.
We are all responsible to care for the nation's public lands and resources so that they are here for future generations to visit, study, and enjoy. Can you help us throw the glove at the bottles to help clean up the trash left at this site?'
Oh wow, okay, so we're using the augmented reality function.
There's bottles floating all over my screen. Now it looks like you can play it without using the camera. But the bottles are overlaid on the scenery and I think you're supposed to catch them. Okay, I earned bee points.
'Thank you, agent. Once a fossil is gone, it's gone forever. You can help protect fossils on public land by leaving any that you find and telling a ranger never vandalizing and always keeping your public lands clean.'
Okay, that's challenge number one. And I see that more have popped up as I keep walking..."

But what’s the catch for this activity? In order for the app to work as intended, families will have to actually visit the sites their kids want to explore. There is no completing missions from the comfort of your couch. 

The intersection between technology and education grows by the day, as does the wider use of “gamification”. Gamification is the use of game design elements (for example badges or points systems), in non-game contexts. Parents may be familiar with such systems through their language practice in Duolingo, and with exercise tracking apps such as Nike Run Club or Fitbit. 
A wide selection of recent studies have been done on gamification and education, and one involving undergraduate studentseven suggests that, “gamified learning activities have been found to yield similar results to conventional learning activities in electronic learning environments, making it a time-efficient solution for managing large populations of learners without requiring direct instructor involvement.” 
Another discusses the idea that, “gamification design fully reflects the active status of students in the learning process, which can emphasize the cultivation of students’ independent exploration spirit, form a good habit of learning and thus promote the optimization of the overall quality of students to a large extent.”
Agents of Discovery shows the method of gamification, also often used in marketing campaigns, in the framework of outdoor educational application and as a way to encourage people to spend time more outdoors on public lands. 

The Colorado Explorer Campaign is a collaborative effort between Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Managment, U.S. Forest Service, and several municipalities. The program works without wifi but best with cell service, and is offered for free. Colorado’s campaign is available now, and only lasts through July 14th.
Through the Agents of Discovery app, budding naturalists can identify trees, learn the migratory habits of birds, engage in local history, and yes… maybe even find evidence of dinosaurs. 
Perhaps this summer, families may find themselves taking brief road trips and hometown hikes to see what else the program has in store.

Hattison Rensberry has a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design and Drawing, but has worked for newsrooms in various capacities since 2019.
She also provides Editorial Design for the Sopris Sun.