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C of I students create VR tour of Chinese monastery

June 7, 2017

Five kilometers northeast of the city center of Chengdu in the heart of China’s Sichuan province lies the Zhaojue Monastery, a temple dating back to the days of the early Tang Dynasty. This remote temple, home to about 200 Buddhist monks, became the project focus for seven students from The College of Idaho, who set out to China to document the temple grounds for the whole world to see.

Led by C of I history Professor Dr. Jeff Snyder-Reinke, the students traveled to China in January 2017 as part of a 17-day study abroad experience. The previous fall semester, the students were enrolled in a special topics history class taught by Snyder-Reinke, “What Is a Chinese Temple?” After intensively researching Chinese religious practices and unique traits of Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist temples, the students traveled to China to experience the temples firsthand, completing a unique project to create a full virtual tour of the Zhaojue Monastery.

“This is something where anyone from anywhere in the world can go in and have that experience that we had walking into the temple that first time,” said Sydney Call, a sophomore environmental studies major. “Taking everything in virtually is exactly what we were trying to do.”

Snyder-Reinke has led multiple study abroad trips to China, but he noticed students sometimes had trouble producing fieldwork because of the language barrier. With the help of a $100,000 grant the College received from the Mellon Foundation to fund digital liberal arts experiences, Snyder-Reinke assigned the virtual temple tour, allowing the students to apply what they learned in the classroom in a way that bypassed the need for language proficiency.

“This is a great example of high-impact practices that are transforming the lives of College of Idaho students,” Snyder-Reinke said. “They have all this academic knowledge that they can create something with and produce something of scholarly value in a unique setting.”

Using 360-degree cameras purchased via the Mellon grant and their smartphones, the students spent much of their time in China traveling from temple to temple, appraising how each new location might translate to the digital realm. Ultimately, the Zhaojue Monastery was chosen for a combination of size, landmarks and historical value. Over the course of two separate visits, the students spent several hours meticulously documenting every inch of the monastery, taking 360-degree photos of the temple’s grounds, buildings and other landmarks.

“Some of the pictures were harder to take,” Call said. “We would have to put the camera on our tripod, and then have a person underneath the tripod holding it up so we could get a better view. On some of the pictures in the tour, you can see the person if you look down.”

Snyder-Reinke decided to host the completed tour, which features photographs and accompanying annotations of research from each of the seven students, on a platform called ThingLink, which provides educational virtual reality tools for classrooms. The tour is one of the first of its kind for ThingLink, which featured the finished project on its blog.

“I think this project turned out really well,” Snyder-Reinke said. “The students were enthusiastic and great to work with, and they really did a wonderful job. I think thanks to them, you can get a good feel for what this particular temple is all about.”

To view the full project, click here.

The College of Idaho has a 125-year-old legacy of excellence. The C of I is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, four NFL players and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom.  For more information, visit