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USU alum Alicja Copik

(Above) USU alum Natalie Bursztyn at California’s Fossil Falls.

Courtesy Richard Goode

“There's an App for That”

USU Alum Creates Augmented Reality Field Trips for Smartphones

Don’t tell Natalie Bursztyn PhD’15 “it can’t be done” or “it’s never been done that way.”

Fortunately for Bursztyn, Utah State University Geology faculty member Joel Pederson was open to her ideas, when she approached him with an unconventional idea for a doctoral project. Not that she didn’t have to thoroughly convince him and doggedly draft a rigorous plan from scratch.

“After teaching large, introductory geoscience courses at a California community college for six years, the importance of getting students outside of the classroom and engaged in hands-on, experiential learning became clear,” she says. “But, how?”

Aggies at USU’s Logan and regional campuses have the luxury of stepping into natural geologic settings within minutes, but not all students are so fortunate. Bursztyn pondered feasible and cost-effective ways to bring field trip-type experiences to learners in less favorable settings and shared the challenge with Pederson, whom she met during a field trip at a 2010 Geological Society of America meeting.

If you can’t take students on a desired outing, Pederson mused, what about bringing the outing – virtually – to the students? He noted resources, such as Google Earth, that could provide the fodder for some type of virtual reality game.

“Do you program?” he asked Bursztyn. “No,” she answered.

“So, one of my first challenges at USU was finding people with the expertise to help me with my vision,” Bursztyn says.

She headed to USU’s Department of Instructional Technology and Learning Services, where she met faculty member Brett Shelton.

“Brett, now at Boise State, has expertise in the area of video game design and he carefully listened to my idea,” she says. “He explained what such a project would entail and I was blown away by the complexity, but he was positive and certain it could work.”

Then, he told Bursztyn, “Take my class.”

“Join my committee,” she responded.

Diving head-first into programming, Bursztyn, now an assistant professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at California State University, Fullerton, crafted an Android prototype of a virtual rafting trip through Grand Canyon as her capstone project for Shelton’s class.

“It was functional, but bad,” she says. “But it was enough to get us started on a successful proposal for a National Science Foundation grant.”

With funding, Bursztyn hired programmers and began refining the application.

“I wrote the storyboards, while speaking in the ‘language of geology’ to the programmers as they ‘spoke programming’ to me,” she says.

Her design explains geologic time, with (virtual) stops along the Colorado River to highlight key learning concepts. The application also includes explanations of hydrologic processes of rivers and groundwater, along with descriptions of geologic structures.

“The programming was much more involved than we anticipated,” Bursztyn says. “My (geologic) language and the programmers’ language were totally different. But we pressed on with developing the application.”

Along the way, she discovered the app she referred to as “virtual reality” is actually “augmented reality.”

“The difference is our app requires users to interact with the physical environment by getting out of their seats and navigating a digital map – much like the popular Pokémon Go game, which requires users to travel to physical locations,” Bursztyn says.

Included in the project was the need for a means of assessing the learning effectiveness of each user’s experience of using the app.

“I again turned to USU’s Department of Instructional Technology and Learning Services for assistance and found help from department head Andy Walker in designing assessment tools,” she says.

Walker guided her in crafting statistical models for robust evaluation and taught her skills, she says, that serve her well today.

“I’ve been tasked with assessing our geology programs here at Cal State and, because of Walker’s tutelage at USU, I know where to begin,” Bursztyn says.

Working on the app also honed her project management skills, as the doctoral student had to weigh costs, resources and what was technologically feasible to accomplish.

“I had to constantly consider what we needed to accomplish with the app and what was possible within our budget and our time,” Bursztyn says.

The finished product is winning accolades and was featured as the cover story in the June 2017 issue of GSA Today, journal of the Geological Society of America. A companion paper was published in Geosphere.

“Natalie’s work is garnering well-deserved, high-profile coverage in the geologic community,” says her USU mentor Pederson. “It’s a forward-thinking approach to geoscience education and we applaud her tenacity in championing this project.”

Bursztyn says her experience highlights the value and importance of interdisciplinary study and collaboration.

“This isn’t a project any of us could accomplish on our own,” she says. “Rather, it was our collective and varied expertise that made this venture successful. I hope students will enjoy it and get excited about geoscience.”

-- Mary-Ann Muffoletto