This Clemson small-engine diagnostics app will soon be tested as a teaching tool available for public download and use.

CLEMSON — Teaching innovations designed by Clemson professors to help students learn complex subject matter also may help South Carolina citizens solve common problems and learn about the world around them.

One such everyday problem: How to get that mower or yard tractor running after it’s been sitting all winter.

Thanks to a team of Clemson agricultural mechanization and business and agricultural education professors, there’s now an app for that.

Assistant professor Kendall Kirk and agricultural education graduate research assistant Hillary Valdetero see Clemson students walking around campus with their noses buried in their smartphones rather than their books.

They wondered if a smartphone app might be a more effective way to teach the lab portion of a senior-level class focused on the design and repair of today’s complex farm equipment.

Kirk and Valdetero worked with associate professor Phil Fravel and freelance app developer Cory Buckley to develop a smartphone and computer app that guides students through the process of diagnosing and repairing a non-running, four-stroke, spark-ignition engine.

Soon they will test the app’s effectiveness as a replacement for the seven-page, 98-step paper outline and NASA-like diagnostics flowchart that the students currently use in the class.

The app asks the user to make step-by-step observations about the engine’s physical and operational condition, which eventually leads to a diagnosis and repair.

“We’ve created an experiment where we hope to validate the smartphone app as a teaching tool for use in small-engine diagnostics. Once that’s done, we will make the app available for free to high schools and other colleges to use in teaching, and to the public to use in solving their own engine problems,” Kirk said.

For Bob Polomski, Clemson University Extension associate and horticulturist, the light-bulb moment came in April 2013 during an urban tree workshop. He observed a man sitting in front of him using his smartphone to search for a local restaurant.

“He was using Google maps and the location of the restaurants appeared as balloons. When he touched a balloon, a blurb of text would pop up and give him information about the restaurant,” Polomski said.

His revelation: What if instead of restaurants, the balloons were the locations of trees and shrubs? And what if a person could touch the balloons and view notes and fun facts about the plants? It would be a great teaching tool for his landscape plants identification class.

“My thought was that we could map the trees on the Clemson campus and in the South Carolina Botanical Garden and my students could then easily return to these specimens to improve their ability to identify and learn about them,” he said.

Polomski turned to his tech-savvy son, Tyler, and together they set out to create a location-based inventory of Clemson’s trees and shrubs. They had no money for the project, so they used a combination of Microsoft Excel, Google Maps Engine Lite and a handheld Garmin eTrax 10 GPS borrowed from the Clemson University library.

Visitors to Clemson's campus and the Botanical Garden can take a self-guided tree tour and learn about the various taxa.

Visitors to Clemson’s campus and the Botanical Garden can take a self-guided tree tour and learn about the various taxa.

The result is an inventory of nearly 500 different trees and shrubs on Clemson’s campus and in the Botanical Garden that his students and campus visitors can navigate using Google maps.

It wasn’t long before Polomski realized digital location-based tree maps could also be powerful tools for municipal foresters. Polomski published an article in City Trees: The Journal of the Society of Municipal Arborists describing the tree-mapping process and the technology in detail.

“I wanted to share the potential of this platform for municipal foresters to not only teach their constituents about the trees in their communities, but to track tree performance data, anecdotal observations about the care and success of different taxa, and other information,” Polomski said.

Clemson researchers also are using apps to engage the public in collecting research data.

Entomologist Juang-Horng “JC” Chong and biogeochemist Alex Chow launched Clemson’s Vanishing Firefly Project to determine the population trend of the iconic insects.

The researchers turned to colleagues in the Computer Science Division and School of Education to develop an app that citizen-scientists can use to help count fireflies.

The users are asked to first record details about habitat types and other environmental factors using a drop-down menu. Participants then tap their phone’s screen each time a firefly flash appears within their field of vision. Then they submit the data to a server at Clemson University. Maps showing the occurrences of firefly, land-use patterns and environmental quality impairments can be viewed online through the Clemson Community Inventory Resource website.

The app’s role in engaging citizen scientists is the subject of a paper recently published in the international journal of Science Education and Civic Engagement. The app has also been chosen to compete for a $90,000 grant at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C., April 25-27.