Arizona Project WET Launches Smart Phone Discovery Program at Rio Salado Habitat in Phoenix

May 5, 2014

Arizona Project WET (APW) is challenging families and student groups to make new discoveries about nature with the help of smartphone technology. The Discovery Program recently installed at Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area encourages visitors to embark on one of four color-coded QR-code journeys intended to spark creative thinking about questions concerning their local natural environment.

“We want people to explore and think through a question that starts with ‘I wonder…’ and then hopefully learn something new about the nature in their own community,” said APW Director Kerry Schwartz. “The Discovery Program presents a unique opportunity for students, teachers and families to think through questions about their surroundings in a systematic, scientific way, by taking advantage of a new technology.”

APW – a program dedicated to helping teachers promote water stewardship and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) literacy in the classroom through 21st-century professional development – is part of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Cooperative Extension Program and the UA Water Resources Research Center.

When a family or class of students arrives at Rio Salado, they are introduced to the Discovery Program at the park’s information kiosk, which explains that each color-coded Discovery journey allows visitors to act as a different kind of scientist. Once a course is chosen, visitors can download a free QR reader onto any smartphone, and begin their journey. Every Discovery sign includes a question, some ideas, photos, and directions to the next QR-coded sign.

“The journeys ask people questions like, ‘How do these trees survive in the Phoenix environment?’ or ‘How much water is in the pond next to the parking lot?’” said Schwartz. “We want people to think and talk about how they’ll answer each question and what kinds of information they’ll need to find an answer, and then we ask them to submit their scientific conclusions online.”

Using their smartphones as a guide to help connect the question being asked with the surrounding environment, students and families navigate from QR code to QR code, discussing the question at hand and how to best answer it along the way. The Discovery Program helps bridge knowledge gaps by providing online photos and text to nudge learners in the right direction.

“Instead of just looking at the Rio Salado Area, visitors go on a thinking journey, individually and as a group,” Schwartz said. “We want them to really see nature and learn about it, and develop a scientific curiosity that can extend to other places they visit.”

The Discovery Program doesn’t just apply to Rio Salado – it is easily transferable to other communities and natural areas, with adaptable questions and simple sign creation and installation. With a price tag of $3,000, it takes less than a month to establish the Program’s colorful metal signs in any nature area wishing to participate.

“There are a lot of QR code programs out there, but not many are used to lead people through a thinking process to discover new things about natural areas,” Schwartz said. “The Discovery Program is an inexpensive, simple way to engage visitors with a fun new technology, while getting them to ponder the environment in their community.”

For more information about Arizona Project WET and its many educational programs, visit