Tablet PC Collaborative Software Development for Fieldwork-Based Courses

Kenrick Mock, Computer Science

May 31, 2006

In 2005, the University of Alaska Anchorage received an HP Technology for Teaching grant to develop a collaborative effort between Computer Science (CS), Biological Sciences (BS), and Liberal Studies Integrated Science (LSIS) students enrolled in laboratory courses. Using the HP equipment, CS students in a software engineering course developed tablet PC software that will be used by the students enrolled in the BS and LSIS courses. The software allows the LSIS students to efficiently collect data and experiment with an agent-based model of traffic flow. The Biology application is focusing on data collection to support studies in moose ecology. The software allows the BS students to digitally collect data in the field, locate plots through coupled GPS units, allow input of data in the field both from the pen and digitizers, and calculate sample size and statistical power in real time. In the future we intend to apply the same model (Computer Science students collaborating on Biology and Science courses) to different projects involving the natural sciences.


If we can connect the CS, LSIS, and BS students into creating the tools necessary to conduct field studies, we will have accomplished an important goal of our undergraduate programs: building successful collaborative and integrative teams. The CS students will learn the intricacies of software development for a real project with real stakes rather than a toy project. The LSIS students will learn an understanding of the steps required to perform research with scientific rigor. Finally, the BS students will have a valuable tool for scientific sampling while learning to apply statistical concepts to ecological communities.

This one will go on the resume! - CS A401 Student

Implementation (pedagogy)

In the lecture-based classroom we are using the tablets on both sides of the classroom. The instructor uses the tablet connected to a projector in place of the blackboard. We are also using screen-recording software (Camtasia Studio) to record lectures and place them online as flash files. The students in the classroom use the tablets to take notes, easily create and brainstorm designs, and coordinate group work during breakout sessions. The computers allow individuals to perform their own work and easily share it with others using OneNote's shared sessions and other online tools.

While the CS students are using the tablets to create tablet-enabled software, the BS and LSIS students are using the tablets in the field. Rather than collect data using pencil and paper, data is collected directly in electronic format using the tablet and external digitization devices. This enables validation of the sampling data in real-time.

Moose Forage App Screenshot
Moose Forage App Screenshot

Implementation (technology)

Our model requires interaction between CS, BS, and LSIS students where the BS and LSIS students and faculty act as clients for the custom software developed by the CS students. To assist in the cross-disciplinary communication we have set up project wikis and blogs to inform everyone of progress, issues, and key developments.

The CS students are using Java, Visual Studio, Visio, and project management tools to design, implement, and document the software. A variety of hardware devices have been integrated to create the field-based data collection application. The herbivore ecology application is integrating a GPS unit, Mitutoyo digimatic calipers, and a Polhemus 3D digitizer to sample plant information for moose forage. The students are using HP TC4200 Tablet PC's to develop and collect data. We are also using a ruggedized Tablet PC, the Itronix DuoTouch, for fieldwork in rougher weather conditions.

Impact on Teaching

The goal of the software engineering course is to teach students how to develop medium to large-scale software beginning with requirements elicitation to testing, deployment, and quality assurance. The HP technology and collaboration with BS and LSIS provides an ideal environment to teach these concepts.

The LSIS and BS courses focuses on teaching students how the process of science works by giving them the opportunity to participate in authentic scientific research supported by the HP equipment. The value of research-based learning is that it develops critical thinking and teamwork skills important in all fields of work.

Current Status

The computer science students have been the focus of the project to date. In this first year we have focused on developing prototypes for the data collection software. Since the software needs to be somewhat mature and stable before the biology and natural science students can conduct field experiments, a majority of their participation has been staggered to year two. However, the CS students have been interacting with biology and physics/astronomy faculty and students to implement the software. As a result, the CS students have learned valuable lessons in how research is conducted, how to develop tablet software, the importance of requirements, and the importance of involving the client in the software development process.

One major challenge has been scheduling. Our original intent was for the natural science students to use the software in Spring of 2006 in collaboration with further development by the computer science students in the software engineering class. However, the software engineering class was offered in Fall of 2005, but canceled in Spring 2006 due to low enrollment. Additionally, the scope of the projects was too large to fully implement in one semester, which resulted in only partially working software for the Spring 2006 semester. As a result, we have had to adjust our schedule for collaboration to Fall 2006 and Spring 2007. The Moose Forage project is currently the more advanced of the two projects, as a student completed the majority of the work during Spring 2006 for a capstone course project.

Student testing the biomass data collection system
Student testing the biomass data collection system

The tablet and mobile capabilities of the equipment allows real-time data collection and hypothesis testing that was not possible just a few years ago. This project also builds upon the expertise of faculty and students in different disciplines. The collaborative arrangement makes the project feasible and beneficial for everyone involved.

Impact on Student Learning

Two years ago there was very little collaboration between faculty and students in the computing, biological, and physical sciences despite many opportunities. We have made progress in fostering collaboration with the HP Technology for Teaching grant. Today, we now have CS students successfully collaborating with biology faculty and students to create software and implement models to solve real research problems. The fieldwork-based data collection applications have been implemented and the prototypes are being tested.

Our assessment tools include student evaluation forms, concept mapping, laboratory assignments, interviews, in-class feedback, and monitoring of the usage, content, and degree of collaboration using our online communication tools. Assessment will also consist of qualitative feedback regarding the efficacy of the software and the collaboration process.

We will measure the impact of the project with quantifiable assessment data by the end of year 2 when the software is deployed in the field and there is more collaboration between students in the disciplines.

Action Steps from HP2006 Technology for Teaching Conference

Measuring Impact Worksheet from HP2006 Technology for Teaching Conference

Quick Facts

  • Departments: Mathematical Science, Biological Science, Liberal Studies Integrated Sciences
  • Courses Impacted: CS A401- Software Engineering, CS A470 - Applied Software Development, LSIS A202 - Natural Science Concepts & Processes, BIOL A445 - Herbivore Ecology
  • 70 students Impacted
  • Three Faculty Involved
  • This project is funded in part by an HP Technology for Teaching grant.

    Kenrick Mock
    Kenrick Mock

    Contact Us


  • Kenrick Mock, Ph.D., Computer Science,, (907) 786-1956
  • Co-PI's:

  • Donald Spalinger, Ph.D., Biological Sciences,
  • Travis Rector, Ph.D., Physics and Astronomy,

  • References & Publications

    Mock, K. (2004). Teaching with Tablet PC's. The Sixth Annual Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges Northwest Regional Conference, October 8-9, 2004, Salem, OR.

    Information Technology for Field Science Education and Research

    Moose/Deer Carrying Capacity Web Model

    Tablet PC Resources

    CS A401 Webpage
    Software Engineering Course Webpage

    Camtasia Studio
    Screen recording software

    This project supported in part by an HP Technology for Teaching grant.

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