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Thinking outside the book: New state-of-the-art programs often require state-of-the-art equipment, too

January 29, 2018

Penn State Altoona Library offers virtual reality gear, anatomical models to support new degree programs


anatomical models 2

Image courtesy of Jessica Showalter

If an instructor decides to offer a new course, a librarian often orders related materials for the collection. In many cases, those materials might be books or DVDs, but in other cases, new state-of-the-art courses require state-of-the-art equipment, too. When Penn State Altoona recently unveiled new four-year degrees in Railroad Transportation Engineering (RTE) and Kinesiology, the library acquired cutting-edge virtual reality video equipment and large-scale anatomical models to support the programs.

RTE instructor Bryan Schlake first approached Library Director Bonnie Imler about the possibility of obtaining 360-degree video recording equipment last summer. He planned to assign an innovative project in his fall 2017 RTE 303 course, which would require students to work in small groups and produce 360-degree videos of real world railroad environments. Imler connected Schlake with Nick Smerker, who works with Penn State Media Commons, and Dan Getz, who staffs the Penn State Immersive Experiences Lab. Getz says, “Our goal is to make this technology accessible to the broader Penn State population. While the physical Immersive Experiences Lab is located at University Park, the service runs across the entire commonwealth.”

Working together, the group purchased two Nikon KeyMission 360 cameras, two View-Master Deluxe VR Viewers, and a variety of specialized clamps and stabilizers. RTE students used the cameras and stabilizers to film the videos, which they later viewed with the View-Master headsets to create an immersive virtual experience. 360-degree videos like these might be used to help railroad engineers map routes or plan repairs.

Schlake says, “The whole experience was a great success. The Media Commons staff was eager to work with us on this initiative and they were extremely helpful along the way, even providing technical training on the 360 degree software for my students. The Penn State Altoona Library staff were very accommodating and provided near-instant turnaround for us on the equipment after it was purchased by Media Commons. Although these students had very little background in videography, they quickly developed the skills needed to use the 360 degree camera equipment and develop the videos. Exposing our students to this state-of-the-art technology greatly enhances both their learning enjoyment and their ability to gain hands-on educational exposure to the material covered in our RTE 303 course (Railroad Operations and Safety). This project also resulted in valuable content creation that can be used to educate students and the general public in various aspects of railroad engineering.”

Imler also stepped in when Mary Kananen, Assistant Teaching Professor of Biology, requested new anatomical models during the fall 2017 semester. Previously, the library offered a life-size full skeleton as well as two hearts, a skull, and a brain. When Kananen reached out to Imler about the possibility of tracking down a few more models for the collection, Imler added a life-size torso, a muscular model, and a molecular model kit. Each piece is meticulously detailed, hand-painted, and labeled. The models serve as helpful resources not only to students in the new Kinesiology program, but also those majoring in Nursing and Biology. Kananen mentioned that even Art and Spanish courses might use the models.

Housing the equipment at the library instead of within a single academic department allows for a better service model. Kananen says, “Our lab is booked solid with courses and may not be staffed during down times. However, the entire campus community can access equipment at any time the library is open if they are kept at the service desk. Having these models at the library is an enormous help.”

Imler says, “It’s important to be responsive to the campus’s changing needs. We are always willing to work with faculty to get students what they need.”

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