The University of Arizona

Arizona Project WET Launches Smartphone Discovery Program in Phoenix

By Jessica Schlievert, Water Resources Research Center | May 5, 2014
The Discovery Program uses smartphones to guide visitors through Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area.
The Discovery Program uses smartphones to guide visitors through Phoenix’s Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area.

Using their smartphones, visitors to the Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area are presented with questions about the environment and then use signs offering ideas and photos to guide them toward an answer.

The program includes QR-coded signs that feature questions, information and photos.
The program includes QR-coded signs that feature questions, information and photos.

Arizona Project WET is challenging families and student groups to make new discoveries about nature with the help of smartphone technology.

The project's 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 questions about 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 Kerry Schwartz, Arizona Project WET director. "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."

Arizona Project WET is a program dedicated to helping teachers promote literacy in water stewardship and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – in the classroom through 21st-century professional development. The project is part of the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Cooperative Extension program and the UA Water Resources Research Center.

When families or students arrive 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. 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?'" Schwartz said. "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. It takes about $3,000 and 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