They’re Here!

Androids Set to Invade Scientific Education

Androids set to invade scientific education!

Professor Michael Guidry’s shirt pocket is teeming with spinning planets and farm animals, the result of an Android invasion he not only welcomes but is working to expand.

The Androids in question, however, are not nefarious trespassers from another universe. They’re a new generation of smartphones that lend their architecture to the limitless tinkering of the human imagination, opening up an entire new realm of possibilities for scientific and educational purposes.

Guidry is no stranger to adapting educational concepts to new environments. Working with Instructor Tina Riedinger and Professor Ted Barnes of the department of physics and astronomy, he developed Online Journey through Astronomy, a complete, Web-deliverable course in introductory astronomy that includes 350 interactive animations. He is also part of the company LightCone Interactive, which specializes in advanced interactive animations for college and K–12 students in the sciences. So it’s little wonder that he would see the burgeoning population of mobile devices as the next arena for science education.

A few years ago he tried some rudimentary programming with the smartphones of the day. “That was fun and we did some interesting things, but their capabilities were limited,” he said. He purchased an Apple iPhone but never developed any applications for it.

“I never got around to jumping the hurdles to program it,” he said, mainly because there were so many barriers caused by Apple’s proprietary approach to everything and the need to buy a Macintosh just to run the development software.

One Saturday morning in early 2010, Guidry sat down and decided to give smartphone programming another try. This time he went with Android, a platform Google began distributing about three years ago. Android is an open system, which, as Guidry explained, means “you can take the Android operating system and modify the system itself.” With its software developer kit, any user has access to the same tools as a Google programmer.

For three years he had an iPhone he didn’t get around to programming, but within two hours he had the Android software downloaded and a rudimentary working program displayed in an emulator, a device that will run programs on a platform other than the one for which they were written. This summer he spent some time playing with the technology and began developing a website for Android programming. For now he’s working on simple things, like developing critical portions of applications.

To demonstrate, he pulled a black Samsung phone from his shirt pocket and opened an application he developed of the solar system in motion, complete with labels where, for example, the user can speed up or slow down the orbits of planets. He then launched another application, one he wrote for his granddaughter. This time the screen lit up with photos of a duck, a cow, and a sheep. Tap a picture, and you’ll hear the sound that particular animal makes.

“What I’m concentrating on is the pieces—what you need for larger applications,” he said, adding that present smartphone applications markets suffer from “a real lack of sophisticated scientific and educational applications.” He added that roughly 20,000 new smartphone applications are being launched per month, but only a few of those are useful to more than five or six people in the world.

This is where he sees a real opening for scientific education and programming. He’s already transcribed some of his online astronomy programs to make the leap from the desktop to the mobile device environment.

“I just adapted some code I had already written,” he said. “There’s a whole set of possibilities.”

To develop those possibilities and share ideas, Guidry has given two seminars on Android, one at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (standing room only) and one at UTK. He’s also planning workshops to offer a more hands-on experience with programming. And for those who want to toy with the platform on their own, his continuously updated website (which includes the Solar System and Animal Sounds applications) is open to everyone. Students will be able to get in on the action with a new class he’ll be teaching in the spring, a freshman-level course on Android programming. All of this is part of what Guidry sees as the next big thing in computing.

“We’re talking about something that’s having a major impact,” he said of Android. “I think it really is a revolution,” just as PCs and the World Wide Web were in years past. He added that today a smartphone has the capabilities of the best desktop computers of 10 years ago.

“And,” he said, “you’ve got it in your pocket.”

Visit Dr. Guidry’s Web site:
Programming for the Android Platform

—Catherine Longmire

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2010–Winter 2011 issue of Cross Sections, the newsletter of the University of Tennessee Department of Physics and Astronomy.