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Contextual Inquiry: Developing a

Science Learning Mobile App

Designing a mobile app for science

learning for students

· contextual inquiry,personas,quantitative,survey,diary study


My Role: Lead UX Researcher in a team of 6 researchers and 14 research assistants

Project Overview: The big overarching questions is to understand: How can we support kids to see that science is everywhere around them?

Methods: shadowing, journey mapping, persona creation, survey creation, interviews, ethnographies, video diaries, focus groups, and observations

Data Sources: interview transcripts, video recordings, daily diaries, field notes, and surveys

Skills: interviewing, designing, facilitating,

Deliverables: 1) competitive landscape analysis, 2) personas, and 3) sketches/mockups

Tools: PowerPoint, SurveyMonkey, STATA 14, Excel, and MAXQDA 18

Background/Context: To support the future scientists and engineers, SciPic aims to help youth see that science is everywhere around them. SciPic, a mobile app, allows teachers and educators to create photo albums for students to upload photos and videos of the science that is intertwined in their everyday lives. SciPic represents the cross section of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) by integrating visual arts with science and engineer learning.

In collaboration with Crystal Cove State Park, Project CRYSTAL, Crystal Cove Conservancy, and UC Irvine Blum Center. 


1) Understand how students see science in their everyday lives

2) Understand how to leverage technology for science learning in schools and other learning environments

Opportunity and Process

Opportunity. Research has shown that the end of elementary school is when students start to lose their interest in science and engineering. The literature shows that interest in science may be lost because young girls, particularly of color, do not see their science learning tied to their everyday lives (Calabrese Bartoncross-section et al, 2013). Furthermore, there has been little opportunity to leverage mobile technology and Arts (photography) and Science Learning.

Process. A varsity of UX research processes were used. This study was a culmination of determining 1) what the problem space is, 2) conducting market research, 3) engaging with in-depth UX field work research, and 4) UI design through prototypes and mockups. See Figure 1 below for the project timeline.

1. To determine the problem space, a literature review was first conducted as well as observations

2. To determine the market, surveys were conducted with 4th and 5th graders,

3. Engaging in UX field work research to understand potential users to generate personas

4. UI Design of SciPic mockup and prototype for app development

Figure 1. Project Timeline


1. Literature Review.

A literature review was conducted to understand why young students may not be engaging in science and how technology can be leveraged for science learning. The purpose of this literature review is to 1) understand what is known and gaps in the literature about students' learning in STEM and 2) understand what are the ways various researchers have studied the phenomenon of STEM learning resources across settings and over time.

2. Market Research.

Survey Design. A survey was designed to understand students' technology use and their science learning at home. This survey was later used for market research (Outcomes 1 and 2) via SurveyMonkey which is described below. Two sample questions are shown below.

Competitive Landscape Analysis. The analysis was conducted to see if there are any associations between technology and science learning at home. In the deliverables section (Deliverable 1), I show the market research findings which I used STATA 14 and Excel.

3. Data Collection and Fieldwork

Observing Science Field Trips. To better understand how students see and appreciate science, my team of researchers and I observed 4 field trips (see Image 1) at the Crystal Cove State Park that was coordinated by UC Irvine researchers of Project CRYSTAL and the staff of the Crystal Cove Conservancy. The 4 field trips included a total of 80 4th and 5th-grade students and each field trip was approximately 6 hours each. The field trips focused on scientific concepts like ecosystems through the lens of environmental restoration.

Image 1. Student Field trip at Crystal Cove State Park

As part of the initial testing, we asked students to take cut out picture frames and frame something that they think is beautiful. Then students were able to fill out a paper that is clipboard to explain why they selected to frame their choices (see Image 2).

Image 2. Students Framing Activity

Another part of the conception of seeing science around students was to shadow students on a nature hike in Crystal Cove State Park. As part of the hike, we asked students to notice nature and science around them (see Image 3 below).

Image 3. Students Noticing Nature.

Interviews and Focus Groups. Interviews and focus groups were conducted with 6 students to understand how they see science around them. Questions that were asked included how they see science around them, science activities they do at home, technology usage, and relationships to science. Students we interviewed described what science meant to them and many included technology and games (see Image 4-6). We also noticed that students were engaging in core disciplinary practices of science like observations. Conducted these interviews and focus groups helped build the persona of what kind of users would use SciPic.

Image 4-6. Students Words Describing Science

Video Diaries. As part of a daily diary study, I asked four 5th grade students to complete a "Day in the Life of You With Science." This data was collected to mimic the type of behavior we wanted to be reproduced with SciPic which is students take pictures of science in their everyday lives. Students were given iPads with Daily Science Challenges as the Lock Screen. Students could take pictures or record videos to answer their challenges. Diary questions are below in Image 7.

Image 7. Daily Diary Questions

Below is a user's response to Tuesday's question (see Image 8). She mentions boiling water as part of doing science and connects it to making the ramen she ate.

Image 8. Students Responses to Daily Diary Question

Personas. Personas were also generated from the Market Research and the Interview/Focus Groups. 3 personas are indicated below in the deliverables. MAXQDA 18 software was used to analyze data.

4. App Development

Paper Prototype/Wireframing. After conducting the research above (literature review, market research, competitive landscape analysis, observations, interviews, focus groups, and diary studies), the team created a paper prototype of the user flow and wireframing of SciPic as a mobile app (see Image 9).

Image 9. Paper Wireframing


Objective 1: Understand how students see science in their everyday lives​

Market Research for Science Activities at Home. Below describes the types of science activities students are engaging in and when the last time they were engaging in it. Students generally have tried many of the activities before within the last year. Only about half of the participants have never taken anything apart before.

Objective 2: Understand how students see science in their everyday lives​

Market Research for Science Activities at Home. Figure 2 below describes the types of science activities students are engaging in and when the last time they were engaging in it. Students generally have tried many of the activities before within the last year. Only about half of the participants have never taken anything apart before.

Figure 2. Market Analysis of Students' Home Science Activities.

A composite score was created of the science related activities students engage with at home. From the distribution below (Figure 3), students are engaging with science activities at home within the last 6 months to the last year. This also shows that a small number of students are constantly engaging in science at home which is approximately the same amount of students who have never engaged in science activities.

1 = Never, 2 = Last Year, 3 = Last 6 Months, 4 = A Month Ago.

Figure 3. Market Analysis of Composite Scores of Science Activities at Home.

Understand how to leverage technology for science learning in schools and other learning environments

Figure 4 below is a representation of students who can connect to the internet via computer and tablet/phone. An overwhelming amount of 4th and 5th-grade students can connect to the internet by phone and tablet more than a computer. This is why a mobile app to learn science is highly suggested compared to computer software to learn science.

Figure 4. Students' Technology Use at Home.


1. Competitive Landscape Analysis

ClassDojo vs. flickr vs Instagram vs. SciPic

2. Personas of Three (3) Users

3. Sketches/Mockup

Below is the wireframing of SciPic and first mockup where students can post pictures of science around them.

Below is the high fidelity working prototype.

Reactions from Research Presentation

Below is feedback from parents and business stakeholders, who served as judges for the Designing Solutions for Poverty Competition from UC Irvine's Blum Center, about the idea of SciPic as a mobile app for science learning.

Great concept. It’s like having science in your pocket​

A noble undertaking – all children of school age should be animated by science.


Calabrese Barton, A., Kang, H., Tan, E., O’Neil, T., Guerra, J.B., & Brecklin, C. (2013). Crafting a future in science. American Educational Research Journal, 50(1), 37-75.

Chan, N. N., Walker, C., & Gleaves, A. (2015). An exploration of students' lived experiences of using smartphones in diverse learning contexts using a hermeneutic phenomenological approach. Computers & Education, 82, 96-106. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.11.001

Gurung, B., & Rutledge, D. (2014). Digital learners and the overlapping of their personal and educational digital engagement. Computers & Education, 77, 91-100. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.04.012

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