Into the Woods: Using Augmented Reality and Science Communication to tell the Story of the North Woods

On the north side of Flagg Road, on the edge of campus, lies the North Woods, a 307-acre parcel of land that includes unmanaged forest, wetlands areas, fields, and hiking trails. It is commonly used by the Natural Resources Science Department for field labs or by members of the campus community who want to escape into its network of hiking trails. For the Digital Writing Environments, Location, and Localization (DWELL) Lab, the North Woods holds even more promise: It’s a site for an augmented reality project aimed at creating a multimedia “classroom in the forest.”

“It’s a little surprising and disappointing that so few people know about the North Woods,” says AnnaFaith Jorgensen, a student in URI’s Master of Environmental Science and Management (MESM) program who works with the DWELL Lab.  

The North Woods Project aims to change that. The DWELL Lab, run by Madison Jones, an assistant professor of professional and public writing and natural resource science, researches the ways in which location-based media change the ways writers and readers interact with places. The North Woods project blends augmented reality, web development, and digital mapping to create new ways for people to experience the North Woods. 

“There’s a really big focus on what physical places mean and what they can represent,” says Joe Ahart, another MESM student who worked on the project last summer. “Digital rhetoric can be inclusive and be multifaceted. The project focuses on how it can be a tool to reveal layers of a space, seeing the North Woods through multiple perspectives, whether it be ecological or historical or artistic.”

Ally Overbay, another MESM student and a research assistant in the DWELL Lab, says the project is a prime example of the multifaceted work the lab does. “The North Woods Project is very interdisciplinary, which is a big component of DWELL’s work,” says Overbay. “Meaning is made by many different people, and the North Woods Project hopes to develop its own sort of purpose and role in the university, not by just a few people, but by the whole campus community.”

Jorgensen focused on developing content for the website that will accompany the project, delving into research on the historical and social background of the 307-acre parcel of land. She was able to draw from the North Woods Stewardship Project Preliminary Report, a comprehensive report written by a group of MESM students and published in January of 2022, and from resources created by the North Woods Stewardship Council, spearheaded by natural resource science professors Michelle Peach and Brett Still. “We can learn a lot from the North Woods because the disturbance history is low for a long time in this area,” Jorgensen says. 

While the Natural Resources Science Department is the primary department that utilizes the teaching forest, the North Woods Project will create an opportunity for other departments, such as English, art, and anthropology, to take advantage of the space. “I was able to walk with two professors from the anthropology department, and we went to one of the historic foundations and talked about what their students might have the chance to learn if they were to take a field trip to the North Woods,” says Jorgensen. Travess Smalley, an assistant professor of art, and Leah Heilig, an assistant professor of writing and rhetoric, have already helped initiate interdisciplinary engagement with the North Woods, but there is plenty of potential for other departments to take advantage of the space. The research that Jorgensen is doing will lay the groundwork for future collaborations and expansion of the North Wood’s identity as a teaching forest and resource for all of campus. “We built the website as a foundation where we can just keep reaching out and keep expanding into English departments, art departments, and making it a really open-ended place to collaborate,” Ahart says. 

While the central goal of the project is increasing the presence that the North Woods has in academic and campus life, the DWELL team is mindful of the impact that increased use might have. “Potential degradation from the impacts of use is something to approach with a solutions mindset and should not override that students should have access to the space,” Jorgensen said. “Classes can set that expectation as a space for recreation but also research, and introduce it with the values they’re trying to instill hand-in-hand.”

While Jorgensen has been working on content for the website, Ahart and Overbay have been working on content for the augmented reality aspect of the project. Augmented reality involves placing digital three-dimensional models or objects in real space. As people experience the space physically, they access the augmented reality content on a phone or tablet. Part of the work that Ahart and Overbay did over the summer was looking for points of interest that might benefit from digital augmentation. “For example, there’s this vernal pool right when you enter, and that’s a point of interest,” Overbay explained. “So what can we model? What can we represent in AR?” After researching key locations in the North Woods that could be points of interest for augmented reality, Ahart and Overbay can generate infographics or signs that will become the digital three-dimensional objects.

Telling the story of the North Woods is an exciting endeavor, the project team says, especially when it incorporates combining natural and digital spaces to create an experience. Like the North Woods itself, the North Woods Project is a living project that will continue to grow and evolve with time. Through the DWELL Lab, Ahart, Jorgensen, and Overbay are laying the foundation for members of the URI community to experience the North Woods in a variety of ways. “The North Woods is a place, but for everyone that uses it or visits it, it’s a different space for them,” Overbay said. “For some people, it’s a space to find peace and quiet, for someone else it is a space where they go trail running, for someone else it might be where they go birding. It has a different meaning for each person,” says Overbay. The DWELL Lab team hopes their project will provide new avenues for people to create meaning in the North Woods. 

By Sarah Heavren, CELS Communications Fellow