CEDAR FALLS — From national parks in Brazil to the Gold Coast in Australia, a few clicks on the internet can deliver a virtual tour of streets and destinations across the world via Google Street View.

Thanks to a mini-grant and the vision of University of Northern Iowa instructor John DeGroote, parts of the vast Cedar Valley trail system’s winding paths through wooded ground and along the banks of the Cedar River have been added to the site.

“The idea is to increase the visibility of the nice trail system we have here. Even local people might not be aware of the extent of [the trails] and for people who might be thinking about visiting,” DeGroote said. “The Cedar Valley has definitely leveraged the trail network for tourism so people come here specifically to ride the trails. Now they can virtually explore the trails before they come.”

DeGroote is the director of the UNI GeoInformatics Training, Research, Education and Extension Center located in UNI geography department. The GeoTREE Center received a Cedar Trails Partnership grant in May 2018 for trail promotions.

Google Street View uses the technology featured in Google Maps and Google Earth that provides GPS coordinates from satellites and panoramic views from many streets in the world.

About five students, including Grant Burke and Ben Gavin, spent much of their summer working on the project, capturing high quality imagery by walking the Cedar Valley trails and taking a photo with the 360-degree camera about every 20 yards.

Burke is finishing a master of arts in geography, and Gavin graduated in the spring with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science with a GIS and cartography certificate from the geography department.

Along with learning the technical skills to publish images, the students also are learning about project management, said DeGroote.

“I left these guys pretty much in charge,” he said.

For each hour they spend on the trail, it takes about four hours of editing to publish the interactive story maps.

“Once we get back to the lab, each camera has a software program on one of our lab computers that will stitch the images together,” Burke said.

The students also are able to track how many times people have viewed their images. The trails have received more than 20,000 views in just a couple of months.

“They’re getting quite a bit of attention,” DeGroote said.

Gavin and Burke already have photographed the River Front Trail area near Gateway Park, along with trails along Pfeiffer Park, Big Woods Lake area and Prairie Lakes area.

The crew expects to publish images from about 20 percent of the Cedar Valley trails throughout the yearlong grant period. More images will be taken through the fall and some during the winter.

The second phase of the project includes building an interactive story map that includes video. The students captured video from Cedar Valley PedalFest and Iowa Irish Fest High Nelly Bike ride that will be available on the website.

The GeoTREE Center also has been working on a similar project on the UNI campus with support from the UNI Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs with goals of raising visibility of the campus to all potential visitors but especially prospective students and their parents. Since May, the campus has had more than 160,000 views.

DeGroote said Google captured and published imagery to Google Street View of all sidewalks and recreational trails on campus for Iowa State University and the University of Iowa campuses.

Since DeGroote did not hear back from his request to Google to include UNI on that list, he decided his department would take on the project.

DeGroote and the students also have developed and delivered lessons to Orchard Hill Elementary fourth grade classes.

Gavin and Josh Dyer developed the workflow and lesson plans. Dyer presented three separate lessons over three periods for each class, including each student having the opportunity to capture imagery inside and outside. DeGroote said fourth grade teachers Joan Hewett and Karen Shook were instrumental in making these lessons a success in their classrooms, while Cedar Falls School District technology and instructional coaches Luke Wagner and Joe Carney assisted in the lessons.

“I think it’s a win-win for everybody. We’re doing this for UNI, but we’re also doing things for the community. And students get to learn and work on an interesting project,” DeGroote said.

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