Wednesday, August 6, 2008

PS 45-103: Using virtual tour and interactive imagery to teach understanding and assessment of environmental gradients and seasonal change in nature trails

Carmen R. Cid, Eastern Connecticut State University and James A. (Drew) Hyatt, Eastern Connecticut State University.


Nature trails are primary sites for educating a diverse audience on how biodiversity changes in response to topographic variation, human influences and seasonal climatic conditions. To fully experience the environmental variation associated with these trails requires repeated visits at various times of year, with wondering off the trail. This may not be possible for teachers, students or parents with limited time for scheduling field trips. To facilitate access to the spatial and seasonal variation in biological, hydrologic and geologic features along the Eastern Connecticut State University Arboretum environmental field lab trail, along the stream running parallel to the trail, and in cross-section transects from trail to stream, we developed a collection of digital resources using digital video interviews with experts, conventional annotated image galleries and new interactive imagery. We used two innovative techniques to build interactive imagery along ten transects from trail-based maker posts to a stream that included: 1) repeat digital photography, enabling users to simultaneously view and move through the forest, or conduct panoramic rotations, comparing more than one season of the year, and 2) real estate software to build interactive views that allow users to move into and around 360-degree stitched imagery.


Each trail-to-stream transect highlights different environmental features. Examples include the impact of the stream on vegetation structure, the effect of human influences such as abandoned rock walls and sedimentation run-off mishaps, or the changes in biodiversity associated with the stream entering a ¾ acre pond, or environmental changes associated with transitions from glacial till soils to sandy, stratified drift substrate. These "virtual walks" and "virtual spins", which may be viewed on a computer or, for some cases, downloaded to a video iPod for use in the field, promote direct and interactive comparisons of seasonal changes at key locations in the Arboretum. Some allow users to interactively manipulate selected flora, digitally turning a plant over to view the undersides of leaves. The virtual walk resources have been used to provide middle school science teachers with several content enrichment activities, integrating earth science and ecology education, and to facilitate teaching undergraduates the essential interdisciplinary connections among ecology, geology and hydrology in determining spatial, seasonal and long-term environmental changes in biodiversity patterns. These techniques allow for building a long-term, interactive, comparative virtual database of biological/physical information on nature trails with minimal student help, a digital camera and simple software.