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EdTech department chair wins major award


EdTech Department Chair Brett Shelton has won AECT’s 2017 Outstanding Practice Award for design and development of an instructional app to improve undergraduate studies in geosciences.

AECT—the Association for Educational Communication and Technology—is one of the world’s premier professional organizations for university researchers in the field of education. Shelton will receive the award at AECT’s annual international conference this November in Jacksonville, Florida.

Called “Grand Canyon Expedition,” or GCX, Shelton’s mobile app features three adventure games in the form of virtual field trips to the Grand Canyon to teach concepts of geologic time, geologic structures, and hydrologic processes.

CGX uses maps and still photographs of geologic features in the always-colorful Grand Canyon. Students walk around a large, open area, as they easily follow the on-screen prompts, making it both fun and functionally educational as they see, learn about, and respond to questions about geologic concepts. The app was made for college geology students, but directions are clear enough for anyone (even as young as junior high age) to understand and enjoy the virtual adventure.

Teaming up with geologists who photographed and described the geologic formations made Shelton’s software learning adventure accurate and authentic.

How It Works

Pictures of Grand Canyon rock formations are colorful and beautiful, and the accompanying text augments the virtual reality by explaining what students are seeing. Following the description, the game asks a question based on the geology content covered in the module. Some questions are followed by an “iSpy” activity where players must interact with the touchscreen of their device as well. Players have to successfully complete each question in order to progress to the next location and the next question. Scoring is based on the number of attempts per question.

The Technology Behind the Interface

The games are based on leveraging relative GPS locations, designed to take advantage of the GPS capabilities of mobile devices.

Typically, GPS detects where users are actually located; relative GPS, on which this educational game is designed, places users in a virtual world, in this case, a stretch of the Grand Canyon. Students take their smartphone or tablet outside to a park, sports field, or an open undeveloped area because the virtual field trip requires them to wander about open spaces as they follow trails in the virtual canyon. Getting students out of their chairs and moving around not only contributes to the experiential nature of the mobile app, it also leverages dual-coding theory, which postulates that the more ways students experience new information, the better they’ll understand and retain it.

Shelton is the first software developer in America to create an educational game based on relative GPS technology.


Shelton and colleagues are evaluating vendors or publishers that can make the learning tool widely available. The app is software, so scalability will not be an issue. Distribution and technical support will not be issues, either, once a publishing partner has been identified.

Adaptations of GCX have a great deal of educational and commercial potential. The geologic structures learned in GCX can be applied to many geological settings, but not all, so other versions could be made to teach the forces of tectonic plates or the prehistoric inland seas of the Pacific Northwest. The technological template could be adapted to virtual motor tours to explain roadside geology of various states or regions.

CGX was developed in cooperation with colleagues at Utah State University, but this nomination focused on Shelton’s contribution as primary developer for design and technical interface. The project, finalized in 2016, was supported by the National Science Foundation.

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