Creative Technology at Colorado State University Combines Personal Digital Assistants and Natural Resource Field Work

Personal digital assistants, or PDAs, are not just used to keep track of appointments, addresses and phone numbers at Colorado State University. The College of Natural Resources has come up with a new and creative way to use PDAs by incorporating them into students’ field work at Pingree Park, the university’s mountain campus.

The idea to use PDAs out in the field was developed by Brett Johnson, professor of fishery and wildlife biology at Colorado State. The initiative was motivated by Johnson, who developed a PDA application for identifying fish. Nazli Nomanbhoy, coordinator and instructional technologist with the College of Natural Resources, worked with Johnson and the College of Natural Resources IT support staff to design the field guide and its electronic flashcard technology (eFlashcards) and expanded it to include birds, mammals, plants and ecosystem information. eFlashcards is an electronic version of 3-by-5 index cards that students use to quiz themselves. The application displays a photo randomly picked from the guide which students have to identify. Students have the option of clicking on a "Reveal" button that displays the answer or clicking on "Next," which displays another photo randomly drawn from the guide.

"Bringing in new technology to help students learn natural history seemed like a logical marriage to appeal to today’s tech-savvy generation," Johnson said.

A mobile computing initiative incorporated PDA technology into the Natural Resources Ecology and Measurements field class, an interdisciplinary course, part of Colorado State’s summer field camp that is team-taught by the faculty at the College of Natural Resources.

Funding for the tools came from the Academic Enrichment Program. The PDAs were purchased from Dell for $300 each, and memory cards and waterproof cases were added for an additional $150 each.

Students who are majoring in fishery biology, forestry, natural resources management, rangeland ecology and wildlife biology are required to take a four-week summer field program at Pingree Park. Throughout the session, students learn descriptions of 120 plants and animals and typical measurement and analysis techniques used in forest, range, wildlife, watershed and recreation management, as well as study the various ecosystems of the area.

The PDAs are small and handy and are in an easy-to-access format, rather than bulky field guidebooks. The electronic field guides aid students in learning the flora and fauna of the area and include taxonomic information, descriptions, geographic ranges, images, sketches and, in many cases, sounds for these species. Additional resources available to students on the pocket PDAs include access to GPS units and field measuring methods related to range, wildlife and watershed management.

An electronic flashcard application was developed to display randomly selected images from the species list, allowing students to quiz themselves on taxonomic order, genus and species as well as descriptions and community types for each plant and animal in order to prepare for identification tests.

Students who have used the device say that the PDA is a great additional study tool and resource and was easy to use. They also said the eFlashcards bird sounds were helpful as well as its mobility and quick access to information.

"Students really seemed to like them," said Tony Cappa, a Colorado State wildlife biology student. "The PDAs make it easy to just sit down and study for a few short minutes during a break without having to get out books and flip through pages."

Developers of the tools made several updates and new feature enhancements to the PDAs based on student feedback from the summer Pingree Park sessions of 2003. These include compact flash cameras for the PDAs, a geology field guide, field methods and techniques, sound clips to help students with scientific name pronunciations and updated photographs and accompanying information.

"More and more agency jobs will require familiarity with mobile computing. We are really excited about giving our students the upper hand when competing for those positions," Johnson said.

The Pingree Park Mountain Campus is located 53 miles northwest of Colorado State’s main campus in Fort Collins. The park plays a crucial role in Colorado’s forestry and natural resources history and development through the courses taught every year at the mountain location.

For more information about the PDA initiative in Colorado State’s College of Natural Resources, visit