Mobile App puts sea life at student\’s fingertips



A new mobile app developed at Duke University lets students – or anyone using an iPad tablet device – access a vast virtual library of videos, photos, maps, audio and descriptive text about some of the sea\’s most charismatic creatures.

With a touch of the screen, users can watch humpback whales being tagged off the coast of Maine or listen to the trumpet-like calls of gentoo penguins in Antarctica.

Scientists at the Duke Marine Lab created the app for use in Biology 127, a popular undergraduate biology course on marine megafauna, but anyone with an iPad can download the app\’s public content for free from the iTunes store at

\”The idea is to leverage the charisma of these amazing animals to drive home lessons about marine science and conservation,\” says Dave Johnston, a research scientist at the Marine Lab.

The app\’s encyclopedic front end is organized by species. It includes profiles of many of the sea\’s biggest A-list celebrities, including whales, penguins, dolphins, sharks, seabirds, sea turtles and giant squid. A new species profile will be released every week.

Course content, provided specifically to students in Biology 127, will offer more detailed information organized by lessons, and gives students access to additional scholarly articles and scientific datasets. Instructors load class notes, assigned readings, videos, audio and other multimedia files into the app. Students can highlight or take notes on them right in the application.

The Marine Lab is part of Duke\’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Funding from the school will cover the cost of providing loaner iPads to students when the app is used to teach the marine megafauna course next fall, and to underwrite future content development.

The app is the first of its kind at Duke. Johnston was inspired to create it by good, old-fashioned necessity.

\”There\’s no textbook for the megafauna course,\” he says. Powerpoints, handouts and assigned readings from scientific literature have been used in the past to augment class lectures, but they lack the portability, interactive nature and mass appeal of a mobile app.

\”Students use mobile apps to check in with the world all the time,\” Johnston says. \”By creating one for the course, we effectively put all the information they need at their fingertips 24 hours a day.\”

Using a 2010 seed grant from Duke\’s Center for Instructional Technology, Johnston engaged with a class of undergraduate computer science students to handle the technical challenge of creating the iPad app framework so it could easily be adapted for use in other classes at the Marine Lab or across Duke\’s campus.

Fellow Marine Lab faculty members Ari Friedlaender, Doug Nowacek, Andy Read and Cindy Van Dover helped guide the app\’s development and contribute to its content.

The Marine Lab is a year-round teaching and research campus located on the North Carolina coast, three hours east of Durham in the historic town of Beaufort. Biology 127 is taught by Marine Lab faculty every fall on Duke\’s main campus in Durham.

\”Because of our distance from main campus, many undergraduates are unaware of the opportunities available to them at the Lab,\” Johnston says. \”The marine megafauna course and the new mobile app are great ways to bring the coast to campus and the world, and show people what we\’re all about.\”