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ESA profile: Virtual hike transports students to Tuolumne Meadows

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Sarah Yarnell, a faculty researcher for the Center for Watershed Sciences, helped design a 3-mile virtual tour of one of Yosemite’s rivers. "Like a 3D home tour — you can click around and navigate everything you’re seeing,” Yarnell said. “We took that same technology but went and did that outside." Courtesy photo

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From page A1 | August 14, 2014 |

* Editor’s note: The Enterprise is highlighting some of the young UC Davis researchers who will be presenting at this week’s Ecological Society of America’s annual conference in Sacramento.

In a class on stream formation last year, UC Davis students plugged in their headphones, tapped a link, and stepped out onto Lembert Dome in the Yosemite Valley.

They opened their eyes to a glorious view of Tuolumne Meadows, blanketed on either side by deciduous forests and carved through the middle by the eponymous river that ambles through green and brown grasses.

Only then, under auspicious blue skies and with the sound of wind muffling over the dome, does lecture begin.

Sarah Yarnell, a faculty researcher for the Center for Watershed Sciences, helped design this 3-mile virtual tour of one of Yosemite’s hallowed icons.

“Like a 3D home tour — you can click around and navigate everything you’re seeing,” Yarnell said. “We took that same technology but went and did that outside.”

Yarnell and colleagues from the University of Worcester in the UK traveled through the meadows for two days, recording sound and capturing high-quality photographs at each of the 49 stops.

“This is certainly not a replacement for field trips by any shake of the stick, but students have limited time,” Yarnell said.

This hike follows a similar tour created by Worcester faculty and researchers, which described mountain hydrology in the Swiss Alps. Virtual nature was well-received by students at both universities.

“Students felt like it was more interactive, (they) can go through at their own pace,” Yarnell said. “It just made them want to go.”

Yarnell embedded lectures, pictures and text boxes to the hike to add context to her lectures. The UCD capstone course, Ecogeomorphology, taught students how water and rocks shape the earth and the biology that inhabits the valley. Now the hike has been re-released as a public tour, with Ian Maddick, from Worcester, narrating signs found along the path.

The tour begins upstream of Highway 120 and winds along the river to the base of the meadow. Next to cinnamon-colored beds of pebbles, Stop 10 talks about John Muir, whose profound writings and unparalleled dedication to Yosemite served as an impetus for the national park system. At 15, the hike breaks at Parsons’ lodge, built in memory of early Sierra club leader Edward Taylor Parsons. Other videos discuss the Native American tribes that traveled to the high meadows during the summer months and the wildlife that scampers through the largely perennial landscape.

Yarnell said she hopes to design more hikes within Yosemite Valley and up Lyell Glacier, but only as supplements to immersive field work.

“The best way to see it is to go out onto the river,” she said.

— Want to stroll along the river banks yourself? The virtual hike can be found at https://watershed.ucdavis.edu/education/classes/classes/virtual-fieldtrip.

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Elizabeth Case

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