Pokémon Go: Biology Edition

UC Davis instructor incorporates ArcGIS into BIS2C, and raises test scores by encouraging biology students to roam the Arboretum to search for and classify wildlife.

By Nicole Nguyen, August 17, 2017

Students using app

Students using the Collector for ArcGIS app in the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden.


“I actually enjoyed the project,” said no biology student ever, until the Collector for ArcGIS app, which allows UC Davis BIS2C students to scavenge the Arboretum’s plants and animals for extra credit.

App screenshot

Screenshot of the Collector for ArcGIS app. View larger

The ArcGIS program is a geographic information systems (GIS) app, which collects data tied to a specific geographic point. Many professionals use it for different purposes, such as cities for urban planning, or UC Davis for biology classes.

Because an introductory biology course can have as many as 720 students, it’s difficult to provide students hands-on experience in botany and zoology. Dr. Geoffrey Benn, BIS2C instructor and course coordinator, saw the app as a solution -- “Students can take what they learn in class and apply it outside. It’s a ‘Diversity of Life’ class, so we want them to go outside and look at real life.”

UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden staff Andrew Fulks, assistant director, and Shannon Still, director of plant conservation, helped align the app to the Arboretum. Programmed by GIS analyst Chris DiDio, the interface guides students through a classification process, and prompts them to take pictures and write notes on each finding.

 “I felt like one of those Pokémon Go players trying to catch a rare non-vascular plant,” says one of Dr. Benn’s students.

Map of results

Map of student-collected data. (View larger)

UC Davis’ Arboretum happens to be the perfect location for the GIS system; it’s filled with a wide variety of wildlife, including non-native plants and animals. App administrators can also update the content to accommodate for seasonal changes. If a particular species is difficult to find because it may be dormant for example, instructors will provide clues to help students during their scavenger hunt.

Once populated by student answers, teaching assistants grade the collected data to give students extra credit. The app was first implemented during fall quarter 2016 and raised scores of test questions regarding plant and animal classification by 9%. About half of the class participated when the app first launched, with more joining each quarter.

The Arboretum adventure enhances learning in ways that traditional teaching methods can’t. It accommodates large classes and encourages students to apply their knowledge outside of the classroom, all while raising test scores and introducing students to areas of campus they may have not known existed. With the app’s success and growing popularity in the academic realm, Dr. Benn hopes to see other universities adopting GIS in their biology courses. 

Nicole Nguyen is a student communications intern for the UC Davis Division of Finance, Operations, and Administration