Teams of students from across the country participated Nov. 28 and 29 in the inaugural 24-hour EcoHack event put on by Unity College’s XR Innovation Lab. Photo by Joel Crabtree

Sarabecca Barnett is enrolled in a master’s degree program at Unity College, but lives in Northern California, immersed in the wildlife she is studying.

Unity College XR Innovation Lab’s logo.

Barnett, 49, a distance education student at Unity College in Waldo County, participated in the inaugural 24-hour EcoHack event held Nov. 28 and 29 and organized by Unity’s XR Innovation Lab.

Her team addressed a wildlife prompt to look at an area where wildlife might be threatened. Barnett created a general concept where the viewer can see as the wildlife does.

“You would be a polar bear and you would go through survival in the Arctic, like a point-of-view game,” Barnett said. “You would combine actual GIS (geographic information system) information and actually travel like wildlife.”

Six teams of students came together virtually to solve real-world global environmental challenges, ultimately coming up with presentations to share by using eXtended Reality (XR) technology.

Barnett was one of two Unity students who teamed with a group of students from Quinnipiac University of Hamden, Connecticut.

Other student teams came from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Florida International University, the University of Michigan and two teams from The Knowledge Society, an international program that seeks to “train young people to maximize their ability to make an impact in the world.”

“This allowed us to see that there’s a different way to create community, which really opens up a new way for collaboration in the sciences,” Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury said.

Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury, photographed in March 2018 at at the college’s Sky Lodge in Moose River, said the EcoHack event demonstrated an innovative way of collaborating in the sciences through technology. Morning Sentinel file

Barnett graduated in 1995 from Saint Peter’s University, a Jesuit school in Jersey City, New Jersey, where she studied political science and Spanish literature.

Over the past two decades, she has worked in a variety of industries as a business or marketing manager. Her roles have included construction project engineer, project coordinator, freelance journalist, retailer and part-time ski instructor and coach.

The Montague, California, resident is working on a master’s degree from Unity College in wildlife conservation and management, which she expects to complete in 2022. Barnett said she is interested in research, academia and wildlife management.

“The distance education program is really great because I live in the middle of wildlife and can actually study it while looking at it,” Barnett said. “Most people are removed from it. I’m really interested in coming up with solutions, which these classes really allow for.”

Katerena Jarrell, 26, is also a distance education student who participated in the EcoHack, on the same team as Barnett.

A Durham, North Carolina, resident, Jarrell graduated with a geography degree from Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, and studied environmental science at Southern New Hampshire University.

At Unity, Jarrell is pursuing a master’s degree through the college’s Environmental GIScience program. Her goal is to do meteorology or climate studies for the National Weather Service.

Jarrell said she saw an email about the EcoHack and decided to enroll. She was not quite sure what to expect, but it was “definitely” a valuable experience.

“I learned so much, not just about the environmental side, but, because they were gamers and computer-oriented, I was able to learn more in that aspect,” Jarrell said. “It was fun because we were able to divide and conquer.”

Katarena Jarrell of Durham, North Carolina, with her daughter, Zaylee, said the value of the EcoHack was as much in the networking as it was in the learning. Contributed photo

The team, which included nine students, is still communicating in a group chat through a program called Discord.

“I’ve been networking with them,” Jarrell said. “I am learning on the way, but having them there to explain about computers, explain about programming — the value of having that connection of being able to be taught more in my degree — is really nice.”

A group of faculty mentors from various universities came together to come up with a list of questions to guide the projects. Prompts included climate change policy in politics, creating a sustainable agricultural farm and adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change.

“I’m used to having these kinds of conferences, but normally they happen in the gym, lab or somewhere, and what I really thought was fascinating was that it was a skill collaboration that was different,” Khoury said.

“The software that we used allowed students to video chat, live chat. Not only were these people solving issues, but also learning how to use technology in the workforce.”

According to The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, XR technology is an umbrella term that includes technologies, such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR), used “either to provide more information about our actual environment to enhance our senses or to create completely artificial experiences.”

In May, Unity hired David Bass-Clark as the director of AR/VR research and development. His role is to work with faculty and instructional designers to use XR technologies to create educational opportunities for students.

Bass-Clark previously worked as an educational technologist at the University of New England in Biddeford, and with schools and companies in American and China.

David Bass-Clark is director of Unity College’s Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality Research and Development program, using extended reality technologies to create learning programs. Photo courtesy of Unity College

Khoury said he especially liked Bass-Clark’s fit because of his experience in “industry and education.” Bass-Clark’s job incorporates creating XR experiences internally for students, but also externally with partners.

“A big part of what I do is building, prototyping and designing 3D experiences,” Bass-Clark said. “With the building of simulations, it empowers us to go to places where we wouldn’t normally go and places where we wouldn’t normally be.”

The Unity College XR Innovation Lab partnered with the Yale Center for Collaborative Arts and Media, the University of Michigan’s Alternate Reality Initiative, MetaVRse, Esri, LBX Immersive and Quinnipiac Game Design & Development to put on the program.

Unity officials hope to host other programs like EcoHack in the future.

“At Unity College, we really want to get our name out there more than it is,” Bass-Clark said. “This shows that we’re on the cutting edge of what’s possible, and we’re bringing a name like Yale, like a Michigan, a Quinnipiac because they want to be a part of this.”

Unity College students are studying this year under a fully remote system. School officials said they hope to return to a hybrid learning model for the 2021-22 academic year.

The school is exploring the sale of its 225-acre flagship campus at 90 Quaker Hill Road in Unity, but nothing is definite. Unity also has sites in Jackman, Portland, New Gloucester and Thorndike.

Entering the school year, Unity also announced a massive overhaul of its educational model. The college laid off 15% of its staff in a move Khoury said was not “simply a reaction to the pandemic.” The college shifted from a traditional, two-semester model to a schedule with eight five-week terms.

Unity officials said the new model provides flexibility and opportunities for students to learn from a more-focused course load. About 1,300 students are enrolled between the distance education and hybrid learning undergraduate and graduate programs.

The college has brought in about 100 more students per term this year. Unity officials said they plan to bring back the hybrid residential program, but Khoury said he also likes the increased accessibility of the college’s latest offerings.

“We are really breaking the barrier, in my opinion, between having to be face-to-face or online,” Khoury said. “Technology is a tool. Once we are post-COVID crazy, I look forward to offering more face-to-face elements that (students) are used to. But our students are making impacts in their communities right now.”

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