STEM students create virtual experience
Culver Middle School students are experiencing something most Jefferson County residents never have, but the students, along with some virtual reality software, are working to share that experience with everyone.
At Cove Palisades State Park, there is an area known as "the Island" that is restricted to public access to preserve what is considered pristine high desert. They only allow a few guided trips into the area for research and native plant restoration, according to Matt Davey park ranger supervisor for the Cove — four Culver seventh graders were on one of those trips.
Despite the name, the Bureau of Land Management-owned area is actually a peninsula and because the steep trail goes unmaintained, it is quite difficult to access.
The students, along with park rangers and their STEM teacher Mark Habliston, made the hike to the top of the plateau to photograph and learn about the space in order to return to their classroom and create a virtual reality experience of the Island.
Once the four students returned with photos, the rest of the class got involved in the project, writing narrations and coming up with text for information boxes.
The idea of the project is to create a virtual reality space where people can experience the place, despite not being able to go there. "You are not going to care about something until you experience it," Habliston said, describing the project in its most basic form as a Google street view of the island.
The component that goes beyond the imagery is what the teacher describes as a mini ranger walk through the space, providing history, context about why it is restricted, the special ecology of the space and even some of the geology.
The entire project is narrated by the students in the same way a ranger would provide the information in person somewhere else. All in all, he said, it took many of the kids at least 20 takes to get their audio portions the way they wanted them.
The students are using virtual reality software to stitch together the photos, text and audio to create a cohesive experience in which viewers can view the area and learn to appreciate why it is closed to the public.
"They have editorial control over it all," Habliston said, mentioning that he made the initial file and the students have done everything else right down to the info boxes that pop up in different places.
The Island wasn't always restricted to public access; in fact access to the area wasn't cut off until sometime in the mid-late 1990s. At the time of the decision, the Cove created another hiking trail in the area, the Tam-a-lau Trail that offered a similar hiking experience and boasted great views of the Island.
In the '90s, the area was getting too much traffic from hikers and that's when they made the decision to close it to the public.
According to Davey, the ranger supervisor, the reason the area on top of the Island is so special is because the soil crust hasn't been overly trampled by grazing cattle, like other land in the area. He said the crust protects the space from nonnative weeds like cheat grass.
"(The area) is basically a plateau of native bunch grasses and other native plants that make it special," he said.
The students' project is equally as special from an educational standpoint. "It's the purpose of STEM which is real world problem solving," Habliston said, adding that the students have had to work on everything from writing skills to software skills, research to find out about the history and several other subjects.
The students have now finished a rough cut of the final project and have submitted it to the park.
According to Davey, because the Island is owned by BLM, but the access is managed by the park, they are working together to decide exactly what they will do with the final project.
But, according to Habliston, it is possible that the final experience will be placed on the park's website.