Outdoors app project earns UW Innovation Award

How can we teach children to appreciate nature when their faces are buried in screens? It’s a common worry among parents and researchers alike.

To address it, Professor Josh Lawler of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences approached Assistant Professor Katie Davis of the Information School with a rather counterintuitive idea: What if the screen can be used as a tool to get kids outside?

The result is a partnership to develop a mobile application that encourages kids to explore outdoors, and study how it affects their attitudes toward nature. Lawler and Davis recently earned a $400,000 Innovation Award from the University of Washington that will allow them to bring the idea to fruition.

“Parents are always asking, ‘Should I limit my child’s screen time?’” Davis said. “With this app, we’re trying to show that it’s really not so much about how much screen time you have, but what kind of screen time you have.”

The UW Innovation Awards were established in 2014 as a way to inspire innovation among faculty from a range of disciplines including engineering, health and the natural and social sciences. Funded by donors, the awards typically range from $100,000 to $500,000 over two years. In their first two years, nine awards have been given, totaling $2.5 million.

The idea for the app builds on elementary school-aged children’s innate desire to collect things. It will be designed for them to take pictures of nature, identify what they find, and share and curate their photos in categories such as plants, birds or landscapes. Kids will earn digital badges as rewards for accomplishments such as creating collections around mammals or flowers.

Davis said the app will be developed this year, then deployed in 2017. Lawler and Davis plan to partner with zoos, museums, aquariums and schools, where it could be used as an educational tool. For example, kids could take pictures during a field trip and then build a collection with their classmates.

The researchers intend to keep the app simple, so kids focus less on the screen and more on what they see around them. They will study the app’s effectiveness by comparing the attitudes of children who use it with those of children who don’t.

“We’re really interested in measuring whether the app encourages kids to get outside and become active and also whether it sparks their curiosity and fascination with nature — both the physical part and the psychological part,” Davis said.

Davis hopes that in addition to helping children be healthier and more active, the work can help foster a desire to take better care of their surroundings.

“If they fall in love with nature and feel a connection with nature, they’re more likely to be good stewards of the Earth and the environment,” she said.