New app will educate, promote citizen science at Cuyahoga National Park

Richard E. Ferdig, professor in the Research Center for Education Technology at Kent State University

Kent State University

A free mobile app is being developed for visitors to Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

The app will include multiple interactive features that will enable visitors to learn more about the parks' history, geology and ecology. Mobile devices will be available for visitors who do not have one so they can use the app which will utilize devices' built-in GPS.

There are already many apps that provide information on parks, but this one aims to greatly surpass the others.

"It is not a virtual tour but augmented reality," said Richard Ferdig, a professor in Kent State's Research Center for Education Technology, who is leading the team developing it. "It encourages people to learn about science in informal settings."

The National Science Foundation just awarded a $952,000 grant under their Advancing Informal STEM Learning program to Kent State University (KSU) researchers, who signed a five-year collaborative agreement with the National Park Service in January 2013.  

"When you go to the park it is such an amazing creation but wouldn't it be nice to have a park ranger there by your side?"  Ferdig said.

App users will be able to interact with park staff and anonymously share their personal park experiences. The park receives more than 2.5 million visitors each year, who make a total of 110,000 information requests of rangers and volunteers.

Frog in Beaver Marsh at Cuyahoga Falls National Park. Photo: Flickr, Todd Petrie.

The app is the focal point of a three-year citizen science project that seeks to also allow visitors to contribute to park management. Via the app's GIS capabilities, visitors will be able to provide information to park rangers and scientists that helps them learn more about the park's ecosystem. 

"Through citizen science, parks have been able to get assistance from the public in inventorying and monitoring park resources," said Jennie Vasarhelyi, Cuyahoga's chief of interpretation, education, and visitor services. "We haven't determined specifics of how citizen science might occur with the KSU app [but] one possibility might be that visitors will be able to report sightings of species that we are tracking."

The team hopes to have a prototype within six months and to release the fully functioning app by September 2015. The app will also have potential to be used in other parks once the three-year project has concluded.

Apps like this also hold promise in an age when technology threatens to keep us indoors instead of enjoying all that the outdoors offer