Canada is home to many amazing natural sites, but not all of them are accessible. In fact, if you live in an urban area, chances are you have to designate time to unwind and immerse yourself in the scenery. Well, we city-slickers need not worry, because there’s a beautiful landmark right in our backyard: Rouge Valley.

According to Parks Canada, “Once fully established, Rouge National Urban Park will be one of the largest and best protected urban parks of its kind in the world, spanning 79.1 square kilometres in the heart of Canada’s largest and most diverse metropolitan area.” Perhaps a map could come in handy when you choose to explore the largest park in the world, but it does not end there: “Rouge National Urban Park is comprised of a rich assembly of natural, cultural and agricultural landscapes with many remarkable features, including: amazing biodiversity with over 1,700 species of plants and animals.” The best part is that there will soon be an app for that.

Alex Cavanagh, Derek Etherton, Kaitlyn Chow, and Winston Lee, four UTSC students, are working to give life to an app that will allow Rouge Valley visitors to inform themselves of the flourishing vegetation and wildlife the park has to offer. Many may wonder why an app is necessary for a day outdoors, but upon being given some information about Canada’s largest urban park, it all begins to make sense.

Derek Etherton is in his fourth year of study, in a computer science program. The project fulfills his third research work-term, as an eight-month contract software developer. Etherton explains how he happened upon the path that led him to his program. “It started pretty early for me. I got into video games, which somehow led me to video game development. I took computer science in high school, and here I am,” he says. He then talked about his experience with the co-op aspect of the program. “Co-op for computer science is super streamlined, I think for management as well. Maybe all undergrad programs. You’re in the program, so they send you an email saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to start applying for jobs!’ Then, a bunch of job postings go exclusively to your U of T inbox. You tailor your resume and cover letter, hit the ‘apply’ button, then you’re set.”cmyk_rougevalley_nourahmed

Like Etherton, Alex Cavanagh is also in his fourth year of study in a co-op computer-science program, fulfilling his third research work-term as a software developer of the app. “I love technology and video games. I loved interacting with technology as a kid, so I took it in high school; I loved it. The one thing that drew me here was the co-op program. So, I looked at that, and thought, ‘Hey, if I could work while I go to school, and take summers doing what I love to do, then why not?” Cavanagh shares. Regarding the specifics of the Rouge project, Cavanagh details how the team works. “Derek and I are the software developers, whereas Winston and Kaitlyn are the content half. We’re building this mobile application for the Rouge. It’s basically an info-guide. So, if it’s your first time there, you can open it up, and see geographically on a map what’s around you,” he says. “You can see some awesome pictures and ‘favourite’ some spots so you can plan your next trip.”

Winston Lee is currently enrolled in the one year-long Master of Environmental Science program, and The Rouge project will fulfill a research internship. “I like environmental science a lot, especially in terms of the college-y aspect. I like looking at a large-scale natural system in terms of how different species are important components to the system…This one-year program offered a co-op internship opportunity, so that really caught my interest,” says Lee on how he got involved in the project. Lee believes that the co-op program could help students who are looking to prepare for the future. “Once you get out of undergrad, you think, ‘Oh, what do I do now?’ This seemed like a good way to get my foot in the door in terms of finding a full-time job.”

The fourth member of the team, Kaitlyn Chow, is enrolled in the same program as Lee. She is also fulfilling a research internship with the app development. “I’ve always been interested in environmental issues on a personal level, but I never thought that it would be my career path,” Chow explains. “I actually did my undergrad in microbiology…Eventually, I figured out that wasn’t what I really wanted to do, so after undergrad, I took a year off to figure out where I wanted to go from there. I discovered the program here at UTSC, and I found out that they offered internship components; so, it seemed like a really good way to get some practical experience.” Taking on the content aspect, she and Lee play an important role in the app’s development.  “Winston and I are both content curators of the project. So, we put together all of the writing and the images for the app,” she explains. “We want the app to be something that a first-time visitor can take to the park and learn about what Rouge [Valley] has to offer, but we also want it to be detailed enough that someone who has been to the park many times can still find interesting and useful information in there.”

So, how did this project come to be? Parks Canada has had a long-standing partnership with UTSC, and specifically The Hub, which is under the Office of Research. Maintained by VP Bernie Kraatz and Director Gray Graffam — also the Senior Fellow & Faculty of Arts, Culture & Media — The Hub is the center where innovation and business interplay. Through the partnership with Parks, Graffam got in contact with Omar Mcdadi, External Relations Manager III for Parks Canada, and began discussing the possibilities, and an idea was born. Through the Arts and Sciences Co-op under Dean/ VP Academic Bill Gough, Cavanagh, Etherton, Chow, and Lee were selected through a standard application and interview process to begin development on the app. With the help of IITS (Information and Instructional Technology Services) and BOSA (Business, Operations and Strategic Affairs), the idea is becoming a reality.