As groups of students, cellphones held aloft, filtered through the throngs of visitors Thursday at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, they might easily have been mistaken for tourists.
But these sixth-graders from Belle Terre Elementary School in Palm Coast were actually beta-testing a new app designed by older students from Flagler County’s i3 Academy.
“The project was to make a game so that children at the Alligator Farm, instead of just looking at the alligators, can learn more about them,” said i3 Academy ninth-grader Kristina Gordon.
The game is designed as a digital scavenger hunt, which prompts users to move from station to station and displays facts about the park’s animals on a cellphone app. It stars a cartoon character named Allan the Alligator and leads visitors ultimately to the park’s newest exhibit, Oasis on the Nile, which opened in March.
“We wanted it to be a journey — an adventure, if you will,” said i3 senior Christopher Turknett.
General curator Gen Anderson said the Alligator Farm often hears from people with ideas and has to pick and choose which ones to try.
“This is one that we thought it would be fun to go forward with,” she said.
The What’s Living in Your Swamp project is the work of dozens of students in i3 teacher Corinne Schaefer’s biology/literature and game design class. It was funded by a $3,000 Technology Education Resource and Redesign Alliance grant and another $1,000 grant facilitated by the Flagler County Education Foundation.
Biology students — typically ninth-graders like Kristina — were divided into teams, each assigned to a different area of the park or a different set of data. They conducted research according to the biology standards and supplied the content for game designers.
And, of course, they learned some things along the way.
“I didn’t know there were so many types of crocodiles,” said Kristina, adding that seeing the animals instead of simply reading about them in a textbook was “like, wow!”
The ninth-graders also created riddles that app users must solve before they can proceed to each station. For sixth-grade beta-tester Kirra Taylor, the riddles added to the experience.
“Instead of just telling you where to go, the riddles made it more fun to find the places,” she said.
According to biology student Kyler Eich, the riddles were derived from what the students had learned in their research.
The actual design of the app was performed by game design students in grades nine through 12 using Metaverse software, which provides tools for creating stories and games. It also allowed the students to superimpose Allan the Alligator over whatever view of the real world the phone’s camera is displaying.
This technology, called augmented reality, is one of the hottest new digital developments.
As for Allan, he’s the creation of senior Kelvyn Cassady.
“I wanted something to be more Floridian,” he said. “I wanted that feel, so I decided on doing an alligator in its bathing suit, like it’s going to chill at the beach, playing a banjo, living the all-American dream here.”
“I think adding a little character for little kids is pretty cool, because they watch a lot of cartoons,” said junior Clayton Carson, “so they can go to the Alligator Farm and see this character and be like, ‘Hey, that’s Allan the Alligator.’”
The students worked on separate parts of the app, much like an assembly line. Older students supervised.
Beacons resembling small plastic rocks are placed at selected locations throughout the park. When a cellphone using the app draws near, the beacon activates the game. A folder for that specific exhibit is highlighted on the phone, and the user can click on it and receive information about that animal.
To keep users from jumping ahead in the scavenger hunt, the students developed a system of collecting and dispensing tokens.
“We didn’t want people skipping around and ruining the fun,” Christopher said.
Once the user has read the facts, the app will reveal the riddle leading to the next location.
After completing Thursday’s scavenger hunt, the first group of Belle Terre students gathered at the Oasis on the Nile portion of the park and discussed the app.
“I liked how you could see the facts and everything about the animals,” Gabby Battaglia said.
Of course, everyone had their favorite exhibits.
“My favorite animals were the lemurs,” Kendall Bovino said. “I just like how they can climb the trees and everything — and they’re really cute.”
Kendall’s mother, a math teacher at Indian Trails Middle School, accompanied her daughter’s group.
“I like how the app kept you focused in going from one location to the next,” Rachel Bovino said. “My advice to anyone else going through it, though, is: Take some time at each exhibit to really experience what it’s showing you. Don’t get so caught up in the app that you do everything through the phone.”
Having just completed beta testing, it’s time for the students to work on fixing any glitches that they uncovered. So the app is not yet ready for the public. But Anderson said the park will continue to work with the students and teachers.
“I hope that (children using the app) will learn more about the animals that inhabit the zoo, as well as that some of them are endangered,” freshman game design student Bryce Hendrick said.