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Forest at your fingertips: smartphones enhance fieldwork

Student cell phone
An MU student uses his cell phone while in Costa Rica. | Photo by Jack Schultz, Bond LSC

By Jack Schultz | Director of MU Bond Life Sciences Center

“Fieldwork” means many things to researchers, but in the past it often meant working without easy access to communication.

Now cell phones allow my students visiting the La Selva Biological Station in the lowland rainforest of Costa Rica to remain connected.

While our science and journalism majors learn to report on biological research, I find that I can be replaced. As an experienced biologist who has taught and worked in the Costa Rican tropics for some time, I normally serve as a biology resource. After all, our journalism students have little or no science background.

Yet, as students interview scientists working in a rainforest, learn about the forest’s biology and write about it daily, they now can go online to find the answer. Everything from ecological theory to species lists for our forest site are accessible to any student with a WiFi connection. Fortunately, the biological station has good WiFi service.

While I need to prompt searches to help students know what to look for, the answer to “what was that animal?” is just a hyperlink away. I’m carrying a bulky field guide to the birds, but most often find myself online, checking my own recollection of animals, plants, and facts and figures.

Students return from the forest with evidence of what they’ve seen, which is much better than a hand-waving verbal description. Group meals are eaten with one hand on the phone and the other on a fork. The day’s plans can be refined at breakfast by checking the weather forecast for our rainforest site.

Any good journalist acquires as much background as possible before an interview. Our students can do that in short order by visiting websites of the people we meet in the field. Over several days, they can refine their knowledge and questions to get the most from conversations with researchers. When a term or concept arises in interviews, clarification is right there on the phone.

Cell phone use goes well beyond fact checking.

Paper maps melt in the rain, but the students took photos of the maps we were given and use their cell phones to find their way on the forest trails. Many actually take notes on their phones, and some compose essays there. The improving quality of cell phone cameras produces excellent pictures to post with blogs and articles. Some of the students are producing photos that rival the quality of photos I take with my bulky DSLR. And the videos they produce are high quality and easy to edit.

While computers and tablets are the instruments of choice for uploading larger essays, cool observations can go direct from a cell phone to Twitter, Instagram or even Facebook. And posting to personal Facebook pages keep family and friends updated on each day’s adventures. Everyone in our group is in close contact with home, even if home is in Saudi Arabia (in one case).

While I will admit to feeling, at first, that cell phones could ruin the fieldwork experience, my perspective has changed to value it as a professional tool and not just a personal toy.

Now I’ll be in line for a cell phone upgrade when I return home.