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In his classroom at Bentonville’s Old High Middle School, 6th grade teacher Larry Merriman has adopted the practice of making sure he and his students spend 20 percent of their time working on passion projects.
That roughly 60- to 75-minute period, called “Genius Hour,” is inspired by the practice made famous by Google, where the company allows their employees to dedicate a portion of their work day to their own ideas.
A Google Trekker camera in action
Several teachers at the school have adopted the practice in some form or another in recent years, Merriman said. It’s something that he and his students look forward to.
During a recent Genius Hour session, Merriman and his students discovered another program from the search engine giant, called the Trekker Program, that seeks to document some of the beautiful, but hard-to-reach places around the world. The program allows people to borrow Google’s special panoramic cameras and take them on their own adventures to snap photos for the popular Google Maps application.
Merriman sent in an application to participate in the program to help document the Arkansas Ozarks, and was accepted about a week later. Now, he’s spending more than just his Genius Hour to pursue his passion for the outdoors. In fact, Merriman expects to use most of his weekends for the foreseeable future documenting the region for Google.
Google has been creating 360-degree views of the world for years now through Street View, which is part of the company’s robust Google Maps platform.
Most of those views have been captured by special cameras mounted to the roofs of cars. The images are then uploaded to Street View, and, thanks to the program, most of the world’s public streets can now be viewed and explored from a computer, tablet, or mobile device.
In 2013, Google officials announced a plan to expand the program by asking tourism boards, non-profits and universities to apply to borrow the Street View cameras, strap them to their backs, and photograph some of the more remote areas of the world.
And soon, thanks to Merriman’s efforts, you can add several locations in Arkansas to that list.
Merriman received the Trekker camera from Google in mid-April. One of his first missions, he said, was to document a stretch of the Buffalo National River.
After mounting the camera to a canoe, Merriman and a friend floated roughly 10 miles from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing, capturing the water, trees, bluffs, and all the native beauty along the way.
The Trekker, which actually includes 15 cameras bundled together, take photos every two seconds in all directions, and Google’s software stitches them together to create the 360-degree panoramic view that users are accustomed to seeing.
Merriman said the camera weighs about 50 pounds, but was surprisingly stable in the canoe.
“We were a little nervous about having the camera so close to the water,” he said. “But it actually worked out perfectly.”
In addition to his initial voyage down the Buffalo, Merriman said he hopes to explore more of the river and surrounding trails in the coming weekends.
“The Buffalo River is a beautiful resource,” he said. “I really hope what we’re doing helps more people to experience it that maybe otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity.”
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