Students and faculty create the Kamiak Butte virtual reality project

During the 2020 lockdown, WSU undergraduate Aidan Aumell realized that his peers were being deprived of the opportunities he had experienced, namely a field trip to Kamiak Butte. With his internship in augmented reality technology, he takes action.

“I’m really passionate about VR, 3D modeling, game development and game design,” Aumell said.

Currently pursuing her Masters in Education, Aumell graduated from WSU with a BS in Digital Technology and Literacy in 2020.

Along with Professor Dr. William Schlosser, Aumell embarked on the Kamiak Butte Virtual Reality Project. Schlosser, known as Dr. Bill to students, teaches natural resource ecology. He emphasized that ecology is about understanding the interconnections of ecosystems.

“What plants will grow and what fauna will react? How do these animals interact? he said. “All of these different things coming together are what really define ecology.”

Kamiak Butte serves as a model ecosystem for students to analyze, thanks to the variety of native flora and fauna that inhabit it.

“It’s the interconnectedness that we try to show in the classroom, but now with virtual reality we have proof of that,” Schlosser said. “You can see the video images and convince yourself.”

To provide students with a digital version of the Butte during the COVID-19 pandemic, Aumell took immersive videos. Then he and Schlosser created lecture videos and an interactive field trip.

After two years, the project is a larger collaborative effort than Aumell ever imagined: more than 50 students are participating in the data collection.

“I’m learning more about Kamiak Butte every day from all the content we capture,” Aumell said.

Both Aaron Johnson and Eric Tetzlaff worked as teaching assistants for Schlosser’s course. Environmental and ecosystem science junior Tetzlaff set up cameras to capture images of native ungulate species like deer, elk and moose.

“I love that you can see these bigger animals via virtual ecology that you probably would never just see normally visit,” Tetzlaff said. “Especially if you’re someone who hasn’t lived in the area, you get a full view of Kamiak’s season.”

Johnson, a junior in wildlife ecology and conservation science, has mounted nesting cameras for great horned owls. He said Aumell takes images of the Butte every month, and this continuity makes the project unique.

“You can see the same place in January, September, or July, and you can see if the mushrooms are growing, if the plants are growing,” Johnson said. “You can see Kamiak Butte not just one day.”

Since the cameras are constantly running and frequently checked by project members, they reveal images of amazing natural events, he said.

“We captured elk migration in our camera traps. I have 75 elk coming down the hill to Moscow Mountain,” Schlosser said.

The cameras also capture species that have been absent from the Butte for decades, he said.

“Over time you get a different type of forest habitat,” Schlosser said. “Understory shrubs and some species are starting to come back after disturbances like fire.”

A few weeks ago, cameras captured footage of a Cascade red fox, a rare subspecies of red fox native to Washington, he said.

“We’re seeing things that we’ve never seen before,” Schlosser said.

This ever-expanding database might seem like the most valuable aspect of the project, but Aumell said one of the coolest things is that it’s a collaboration between students and faculty.

Schlosser recognizes that student ideas are essential to the progress of the project.

“I ask everyone: what would you like to put in place? What are your ideas? Schlosser said. “Achieving a wide range of things is exactly what’s going to keep us all moving forward.”

However, this collaboration is not limited to former TAs. Schlosser said students don’t have to be SOE majors to participate in the project.

“Anyone can get involved; I got a degree in digital technology and culture, which wasn’t even related to SOEs,” Aumell said.

In addition to continuing data collection at the Butte and involving more students, another way to increase the project’s impact is to expand to new sites, he said.

“It will be really interesting, not just with Kamiak Butte, but maybe other places: Steptoe Butte, up to Mount Rainier, or sites on the East Coast as well,” Johnson said.

The latest addition to the project is a night flight indicator, which identifies bird species migrating through the Butte in the dark by recording and analyzing audio. To experience the Kamiak Butte VR project and virtual field tour, visit the project website.

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