By Steven Krolak
This summer, visitors to the Falls of the Ohio State Park and Hoosier National Forest will be able to gain a fresh perspective on these important Indiana treasures thanks to new instruments designed by IU Southeast informatics students as their senior capstone projects.
The capstones required the students to demonstrate informatics proficiency by fusing computer science methods with design acumen, and also challenged them to work with real clients with real needs on real timelines.
Antiquities in cyberspace
There is something poetic about two capstone projects that utilize advanced technology to tell an old story, helping to map buffalo migrations and pinpoint the location of prehistoric marine fossils. But this is the nature of informatics, the science and art of solving problems using computational tools.
“Using tools to solve problems is very old,” said Chris Kimmer, assistant professor of informatics. “Combining datasets on computers with human-centered/design thinking approach is relatively new.”
The Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Ind. recently underwent a transformation, including a re-imagined interpretive center embracing immersive exhibitry. Volunteer naturalists at the park wanted to bring that same improved utility to the outdoor visitor experience.
The park’s renowned fossil beds are a feature of paleontological significance, revealing 390 million years of history in a series of pocked and polished limestone slabs. Submerged during high water throughout the year, the beds are exposed in summer when visitor numbers are high. But finding a fossil and knowing whether it’s a brachiopod or bryozoan when you find it, are not easy. The naturalists wanted to make detailed information more easily available to visitors via an electronic resource that could function as a self-guided digital tour.
Naturalists Jim Mead and Tom Bibb hit upon the idea of using GPS data to pinpoint the locations of fossils, and photographed over 35 of them, which they included in a powerpoint. At that point coordinator Alan Goldstein reached out to Kimmer, who was looking for new challenges for his up and coming seniors.
David Phaire and Ben Jensen took on the project, and Aden Gleitz joined them soon after. They met with the stakeholders, toured the facility and the fossil beds and brainstormed options. Gradually the scope of the project emerged: a web app incorporating the data provided by the park. They produced an estimate of the time commitment for the components, designed a paper prototype, which they tested, after which they began developing the app.
Following the great herds
For thousands of years, great bison herds migrated between the Louisville and Vincennes, Ind. areas in a seasonal cycle of salt licks, pastures and mud holes. Their pathway or trace became a highway for Native American tribes, European explorers, Continental soldiers and American settlers. Parts of it lie within the Hoosier National Forest, which has been gathering data on the ancient route and the historic sites that are connected to it. The Buffalo Trace Working Group of the Hoosier National Forest wanted to create a website to document and make the route and its treasures visible, and to do this in time for the 2016 Indiana Bicentennial.
“We wanted one place where all the information could be posted for the public, because there is so much, but not a lot of it is posted,” said Angie Doyle, forest archaeologist and tribal liaison.
In 2015, she and Teena Ligman, public affairs specialist were referred to IU Southeast’s informatics program by colleagues at IU Bloomington.
The project was tackled by Cassie Mayfield and Dallas Flora. Working in WordPress, they created a site that delivers the features desired by the working group, including an overview of the working group and the trace, maps of surveyed routes, educational guides for teachers, fact sheets, sections on historic locations and lore, and links to resources and a share-your-story section. As a final touch, they provided a looping animated header that shows buffalo moving across the top of the screen.
Benefits for all
The capstone project delivers a unique benefit for students: reality.
“In many college courses, students design things but never turn them into real products,” Kimmer said. “The main learning objective of the capstone is for students to get experience with that last part, so in addition to designing, they have to deal with all the pitfalls of actually realizing that design.”
For both teams, this meant organizing themselves in a way that made sense, delineating roles and responsibilities, building and monitoring workflow, maintaining timely communications with the clients, setting clear expectations, knowing when and how to ask for effort from the other side, and a host of other aspect that are essential to the successful completion of a project, quite aside from the technological demands of computing.
“This project was a great first-hand experience that prepares us for our business lives after graduation,” Flora said.
The experience has also given the clients a taste of what it means to put together a website, including supplying exact data and copious content, beyond the cost savings compared to commercially designed products.
While both sites will receive finishing touches in styling, content and layout, the projects are basically in the home stretch, and the clients are already talking about next steps – at Falls of the Ohio, naturalists want to incorporate more granular GPS data to pinpoint the assets more precisely, and Buffalo Trace Working Group would like to add drone shots and hover features to its maps.
As refinements to the sites continue, the relationships built by IUS students are also taking hold. Krieger, Ligman, Mead and Bibb visited campus last week for a presentation of the websites.
“It’s really instrumental to have a capstone that actually gives back to the community,” Phaire said. “And when students are involved inside the community, they have a link with that community and with employers, so it’s a great opportunity to network with those employers.”
Kimmer, who has been partnering with local stakeholders for several years, sees value in continuing to give senior capstone students opportunities to see projects through from conception to completion, and beyond, to implementation and public launch.
“This is a win for everybody,” said Kimmer. “Students get real world experience and something for their resumes – a finished product on the internet – and our partners in the community get something they desperately need.”
Homepage photo: Senior informatics student David Phaire visits the Falls of the Ohio State Park fossil beds for his capstone project, a mobile web app.
For a sample of the students’ work, please visit the Buffalo Trace website.