Every semester, the Natural Resource Ecology class (SoE-300) at Washington State University, School of the Environment, has taken class field trips to Kamiak Butte. Located only 10 miles from campus, this mecca of biodiversity, unique geologic island substrate, and indigenous people’s homeland memorials provided a living classroom to all students. 

For some students it enables a new visual lens to observe natural environment interactions introduced in class. For some students, new understandings explained events related to their individual experiences previously captured without linkages to the “why” of how things happen. For some, the field trip experience was their first trip into these ecosystems where forest trees, shrubs, grasses, and mosses are found to thrive and survive. 

At the beginning of the Spring 2020 semester, one of my undergraduate students, Aidan Aumell, approached me about some of the animations I used in class to show forest growth through time. These animations were rudimentary, showing only annual images, and others separated by 5-year intervals. The imagery was informative, but he asked about my interest in more developed temporal imagery.

We talked and he shared some new technologies I only knew superficially about. He introduced me to the 360⁰ camera and how that could be used to increased student interest and adoption in my classroom. We initiated our discussions to advance these technologies. 

During spring 2020 semester, I took four groups of students in Natural Resource Ecology class to Kamiak Butte. While on the site, students collected tree increment-core samples from forested sites on the north and south aspects. These samples were dehydrated at the WSU Steffen Center facility, then entered into the NSARU Mass Spectrometry Lab where Carbon and Nitrogen contents were determined.

I worked with the five undergraduate TAs, and Mass Spectrometry Lab Technician, Jenny Carlson to create the Kamiak Butte Field Sample Analysis YouTibe video.


The last group in this series, March 13, 2020, departed the butte as the last class to participate in this live class experience for that semester. As it turns out, social distancing would continue through Fall 2020, Spring 2021, and perhaps beyond. 

Washington State University (SoE-300) class field trip to Kamiak Butte

As the semester transitioned to only online learning, discussions between me and Aidan expanded to consider how Experiential Learning could be integrated into this Kamiak Butte field trip experience. That became the launching point to this Virtual Forestry interface. Aidan Aumell volunteered to be an undergraduate Teaching Assistant for the Fall 2020 semester. Joined by four other undergraduate Teaching Assistants, one WSU doctoral student, and an associated professional guest, this team was launched, and new opportunities sprouted.  

  • As of October 2020, this has expended with plans to take monthly 360⁰ videos at each of the two fixed-location sample plots, to illustrate seasonal changes at these plots, and across the landscape. 
  • Wildlife cameras are recording still images of natural visitor populations to these sites, to provide how and when different species interact. Team members are seeking camera locations to discover new species and their interactions based on the question of “where” uses are made. 
  • Drone flights are recording these plant community interactions for a view not normally made by people walking the ground. These images are interesting, engaging, and informative. 
  • While the 360⁰ camera imagery is being recorded monthly, these drone flights were put into the same consideration. Using these flights, monthly changes will provide better student understanding of how energy, moisture, temperature, and interspecies competition interacts on these sites. 
  • Photographic snapshots taken at the butte are incorporated into this presentation for everyone to capture referenced interactions.
  • Viewers see photographs of a porcupine nest near the south aspect plot and can take a drone flight with narration to learn more about this rodent’s use of this site. 
  • A new team member introduced his photographic collection of bird species taken at the butte, with names and location integrated into each. 
  • Spectators can observe quartzite rock outcroppings surrounded by burned, large diameter ponderosa pine logs. These lead to asking “why” questions about how those large diameter tree stems, burned by fires long ago are not seen as large diameter standing trees today. 
  • iNaturalist linkages have been added to this site to facilitate learners as they seek to identify plant species from images taken during photosynthetically active time of the year.

The Teaching Assistants to this class have empowered this teaching space through the sharing of ideas, task completion, and to serve as a necessary mechanism of student outreach. I lead class synchronous interactions, held two to three times a week, as Teaching Assistants voluntarily take the position as my #1 and #2. In these roles, they watch the chat line to interject student questions for me to answer, watch for student confusion they can assist directly with, or to direct topic discussions for better understanding. These undergraduate Teaching Assistants are joined by others to create the Virtual Forestry Field Team, who makes this entire interface a growing and informative experience. 

Aidan Aumell has taken the lead to program these events into the WordPress interface now being viewed. Using grant award funding I received in 2020, and past Natural Resource Ecology class funding, I purchased Adobe software making it available for me and Aidan to program the 360⁰ video interface recordings into class responsive videos for this domain. The School of the Environment has made wildlife remote cameras available for us to position around the butte as we document uses. 

Daniel Auerbach is not a member of the Natural Resource Ecology class, but he has joined this team to promote this interactive virtual learning interface. Piloting his own fleet of drones, Danny is collecting video imagery to build understanding and adventure. 

Aidan Aumell

Danny Auerbach

To bring these technological tools to life, this Virtual Forestry web domain (http://virtual-forestry.org/) is hosted on a server I built and maintain to house other natural resource science web domains of my private company, D&D Larix, LLC (http://resource-analysis.com/)We welcomed the School of the Environment and Washington State University to join this site as http://virtualforestry.soe.wsu.edu/. Together, we are making this experience into a progressively advancing educational experience. 

These technologies are presented under the GNU General Public License, as open source free software, leading to mass collaboration projects. Its goal is to give computer users freedom and control by collaboratively developing and publishing software that gives everyone the rights to freely run the software, copy and distribute it, study it, and modify it. GNU software grants these rights in its license. This site is offered to collaboratively join with other educators to build these technologies for the advance of how physical site data, plant competition, wildlife population interactions, and energies are transferred. These possibilities stretch far beyond ecology to embrace all natural sciences. 

I am Dr. William E. Schlosser, best known to my students as Dr. Bill, and this Virtual Forestry interface is the response to guide learning with technologies of the next generations. 

This VR/AR experience initiated through this site allows students to virtually touch the physical site characteristics, walk through native plant communities, measure trees they identify, calculate tree size and even measure the Carbon each tree sequesters as they expand total site Carbon sequestration amounts. Students see wildlife use on these sites and conceptualize biotic and abiotic interactions.