Most college students, and maybe even most people in general, spend their time on long, international flights reading, watching TV on an iPad or even just sleeping. William Kelley Schools graduate Shane Loeffler, however, spent a lot of time staring out the window of his flights to and from the United Kingdom, the Bahamas and Chile, and even more time wondering about what exactly he was flying over during that time.
Loeffler, who graduated from WKS in 2010, traveled to the countries for geology and astronomy projects and had an idea for a phone app that uses the GPS function and available databases to provide information about the parts of the earth planes fly over to users. That app is called Flyover Country.
"I tested my GPS in my phone while flying and it was working fine," Loeffler said. "I realized there was potential to get more geology in people's hands if you can get it to them while they have this really cool exciting view."
While he was in Chile, Loeffler met up with Amy Myrbo, a researcher in the earth sciences department at the University of Minnesota, who was doing her own research in Peru. Myrbo had met Loeffler in 2012 when he was a summer intern on a project she was also working on. They were hiking in the mountains of Chile and he talked to her about his idea for the app.
"I had heard good ideas before, but this was one of the best ideas I had ever heard," Myrbo said. "It was like a thunderbolt, this idea."
The pair started working on a number of funding models and, eventually, received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). They reached out to some software developers to help them bring together the databases, which also includes paleontology databases that can tell users the type of dinosaur bones that are buried in the land beneath the airplane. Even better, since it works with the phone's GPS functionality, users don't need to purchase Wi-Fi service when they are flying.
In fact, Flyover Country isn't just for airplane trips. People can use it to find interesting geological sites or other landmarks to visit when they are on road trips or even hiking all over North America.
Loeffler developed a passion for science and geology in particular, growing up on the North Shore with the variety of different landscapes the region offers.
"Growing up in Silver Bay, Finland area is kind of a punch in the face of geology," he said. "There are rocks everywhere, really cool views. That really sparked it."
He also said his experience at WKS led him to pursue a degree in the sciences at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where he graduated in May.
"I didn't go into college knowing I wanted to do geology but I knew I wanted to do science," Loeffler said. "That's probably a large part due to William Kelley having some really great science teachers. (Ed) Walker and H. Casper were great for getting me excited about science in general."
Walker said the young Loeffler was always curious about science and astronomy and had extra questions about assignments or articles in class. Walker first taught Loeffler in an eighth grade earth science class and said from the beginning Loeffler was a student who asked questions that went beyond the scope of class assignments.
"That curiosity in asking the next question made me wonder where he'd end up and if he'd end up able to pursue a science," Walker said. "Regardless of which science it was, I knew he had that kind of mindset."
Flyover Country is available as a free download now, but Loeffler and Myrbo aren't stopping their work to improve the app's functionality. They just received a second NSF grant to continue adding data available in the application and hopefully making it helpful to teachers on field trips.
The NSF grant is also helping fund Loeffler's graduate studies. He is planning to start working on a master's degree in geology at U of M and continue developing the app to make it more user friendly and add data for the entire planet in future updates.
"I just think it is nice to see that little William Kelley has kids with curiosity and they are able to find a path to a job in the sciences," Walker said. "We've had a number that have been able to do it from here."