It’s only fitting that an evolutionary biologist is hard at work creating the next evolution of the textbook. University of Montana Professor Doug Emlen is creating a first-of-its-kind textbook that will be coupled with an iPad app to provide images, audio, video clips, and interactive graphics and exercises so college students taking courses in evolutionary biology have multiple ways to learn and — more important to Emlen — to retain the subject matter.
According to Emlen’s publisher, recent studies have found as many as 90 percent of college students don’t read their textbooks because the material tends to be dense and dull. So, Emlen and co-author Carl Zimmer, a renowned science writer and regular contributor to The New York Times, set out to change that.
With the backing of progressive publishing company Roberts & Company, Emlen and Zimmer were able to rethink the very nature of the textbook. Their goal was to create a tool that would not look or feel like the traditional desk-reference textbook. Instead, they went to work filling the pages of “Evolution: Making Sense of Life” with compelling narrative, conveying science through stories and illustrating the pages with commissioned, original artwork and colorful photographs.
“The book is grounded in examples, but the pages come to life,” Emlen said. “We want this book to be fun to read and, more importantly, we want the content to stick in the minds of students.”
The iPad application is where the real evolution is happening because students can interact with the material. They still can read all of the same text found in the print version, but after reading about, for example, the way mating male frogs attract females, they can pull up an island window audio player and hear the difference between what a female frog interprets as an attractive call and what she hears as a non-attractive call.
“The student is now in the mindset of the frog,” Emlen said. “If they are thinking like a frog, good chances are they are retaining the information because they are having a memorable learning experience.”
Like a traditional textbook, students can highlight information and take notes in the margins. However, the app can take that information and create custom study sheets where even the professors’ notes and supplemental information can be integrated.
“This tool isn’t just an electronic book,” Emlen said. “It’s a true application built with the interactive end user in mind.”
Need a definition for term? Touch the word, and up pops the glossary definition. Want to see what two sparing elk look like in the wild? Pull up the video window to see the battle play out. Touch a photo and it becomes a slideshow of multiple examples. The list goes on.
This isn’t the first project in which Emlen has been a pioneer. He also was the first person in the world ever to study the development of horns in beetles.
Emlen’s beetle research and multidisciplinary approach have gained attention from the broader scientific community. That research still continues, but it’s his passion for wanting to get students to read an entire textbook and feel a connection to the material that motivated him to spend the last two years taking difficult scientific concepts and making them accessible.
The textbooks will hit the bookshelves in August, and the interactive iPad app will follow in September.