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Can technology enhance hiking? PhD student aims to find out

Zann Anderson would rather be outdoors biking or hiking with his wife Amber and five children than indoors looking at a screen.

When Anderson began his PhD program at BYU last year he knew he wanted to research computers and human-nature interactions. With computer science professor Michael Jones as his mentor, Anderson received a graduate mentoring grant of $13,125 to research how computers influence recreational activities such as hiking.

“The goal is to determine how to design interactive computing to make the hiking experience better,” Jones said. “We want to determine if we can design systems, apps, or devices that help people in meaningful ways while they are outside, without getting in the way of their interactions with nature.”

Michael Jones, associate professor of computer science, will work with Anderson to complete the project. Anderson will mentor three or four undergraduate students in research methods and strategies. Part of the research experience involves training on ethics, privacy, and human observation methods.

The project is scheduled to begin in April with a completion date of October 2019. Research will involve two components: observation and intervention.

Student researchers will observe how hikers interact with social media at Saddle Ridge, an area that has cell service and overlooks Mount Timpanogos, as well as Delicate Arch National Park, an area without cell service.

“We all have a little computer with us wherever we go. How we use that to make a better experience rather than something that is just a distraction is what we are finding out,” Anderson said. “We’ve already done a lot of research on how people are using technology outside as it is—cell phones, headphones, fit bits—what we need to do now is dive a little deeper by building apps that enhance how people interact with nature.”

Researchers will create an intervention in the second component of the project. Students will design and write apps that will interact with and—Anderson hopes—improve hikers’ experiences in nature.

“We want to enhance, encourage, and enable outdoor experiences,” Anderson said.

Jones said he hopes Anderson’s research will allow computer science students to receive larger grants from other organizations in the future.

“This mentoring grant is a good place to start because the data that we collect and the things we learn will help us write a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation,” Jones said.

Computer science students with interest in participating in the project should contact Dr. Jones or Zann Anderson.

“Research is really cool,” Anderson said. “You get to pick questions and problems that are interesting to you. . . . If you enjoy the outdoors and want to explore this world of how technology can make for better experiences outside, come work with us.”

-Lilian Whitney, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences

By Lilian Whitney Posted on