May 14, 2008

Students create podcasts for guided refuge tours

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Your MP3 player could become a park ranger you can carry in your pocket, thanks to a Department of Forestry class at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Students in Erin L. Seekamp's upper-level environmental interpretation course spent spring semester producing five podcasts for use at nearby Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge. A 44,000-acre mix of forest, pasture, lake, wetland, wilderness and recreational areas, the refuge attracts roughly one million visitors each year.

The podcasts, downloaded onto individual players from a freestanding kiosk in the Visitors' Center, will serve as tour guides to the different refuge areas, offering the same kind of insider insight visitors would get from a one-on-one tour with their own personal ranger.

"It was the best service-learning project I have ever had," said Seekamp, an assistant professor whose research interests focus on the use of partnerships for natural resource management.

"We're a university with an interpretive program (a way of helping people understand and enjoy what they see in parks and at historical sites), and it's important for us to work with a local agency. This is a great service for the community and for anyone traveling through the area, and it gives the students something useful on their resumes."

Wildlife refuge specialist John E. Magera, who enlisted Seekamp's help with the project, said it draws on technology to get people to "go outside and get their feet on the ground."

"There's a concern about the number of people substituting experiences on the computer for real experiences outdoors," he said.

"Then we have the people who come to our visitors' center, look around, then get in their vehicles and go to dinner or go home. Even if we had the staff to give tours, you can only move as fast as the slowest member of the tour. Young people today can process a lot of information in a short amount of time. They want to move on with things."

Seekamp's students researched, wrote and produced the podcasts -- two to replace existing, more traditional car-based tours, two new programs on the Rocky Bluff nature trail and one for an annual open-refuge event. In addition to the audio portions, the podcasts include video components for those whose MP3 players can play them.

Despite the widespread assumption that young folks rule when it comes to electronic gadgets, neither teacher nor students found this project to be a walk in the park.

"I'm not a technology guru in any way, and I knew nothing about podcasting -- I'm so behind the times I had to purchase an iPod for this class," Seekamp said with a laugh.

"And while most kids today are hooked on their electronic devices, my students aren't part of that culture -- they would rather play outside than inside, so it was a challenge."

The students used GarageBand and iMovie software to create their podcasts.

"The technology is still in its infancy, so there were lots of trying moments in the lab," Seekamp said.

"For one thing, the files are enormous. Sometimes it would take up to an hour just to save something, and sometimes they'd think things were saved and they weren't, so they would have to re-record, and recording is hard -- it can take many days to make a recording.

"But they didn't give up. They pushed through to the end, and I am thrilled with what they have done. The podcasts are all good; they all have amazing things in them. I was a little worried at first, but I had them turn in an audio draft, and when I heard the drafts, I knew things were going to be all right. When I saw the audio and visual together, I was just in awe."

The podcasts won't go live for a bit. Magera is still working on the purchase of the "download station" and fine-tuning some of the details involved in getting the podcasts up and running. But once in place, he anticipates they'll get a lot of use.

"I think we are really taking a step forward in outdoor interpretation here, getting to a stage where the general public will take notice that we are getting with the program," he said.

"We have some fascinating stuff here, and this is one of the tools we're going to use to get the word out."

Students who produced the podcasts were (by hometown):

Algonquin: Lindsay A. Warner, senior in forestry.

Chester: Stephanie C. Koch, senior in forestry.

Du Quoin: Nathan A. Marks, senior in forestry.

Flat Rock: Kyle J. Culver, senior in forestry.

Goreville: John J. Bogard, junior in biological sciences.

Grayslake: Alison R. Litchy, senior in forestry.

Marion: Lauren E. Wyatt, senior in zoology.

Mount Vernon: Teresa L. Wayer, senior in plant, soil and agricultural sciences.

Palatine: James A. Muhlhausen, senor in forestry.

Quincy: Seth P. Blickhan, senior in zoology.

Riverton: Christopher R. Carter, senior in forestry.

Springfield: Kent J. Delai, senior in forestry.

Swansea: Joel P. Hogg, senior in forestry.

Zeigler: Jordan R. and Joshua R. Ashmore, both seniors in forestry.

Forestry seniors Mark J. Blean, Joel F. Ramtahal and Jolene R. Wright also worked on the project, as did zoology senior Scott R. Stewart and recreation graduate student Lisa M. Thomas.