Bringing the field to students with ‘Virtual Field Geology’

Newswise – Geologists at the University of Washington set out to create computerized field experiences long before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Juliet Crider, a UW associate professor of earth and space sciences, first received a grant from the National Science Foundation to send a former graduate student and a drone to photograph an iconic geological site in Pennsylvania and pilot a new approach to field geology.

Her team has now completed a virtual field visit to the site, the Whaleback Anticline, where decades of coal mining have exposed 300-million-year-old folds in the bedrock. During the pandemic, a pilot version of the web-based tool and a version that allows people to wear virtual reality headsets to explore a geologic site just launched have been used. A UW field class used both tools in a summer college course that combined virtual and in-person field trips for the first time.

The UW Virtual Field Geology project has many goals: to make field experiences in geology more accessible to more people; document geologic terrain sites that may be threatened by erosion or development; offer virtual “dry” experiences that complement field courses and help new students acclimate to the field; and allow scientific collaborators to virtually visit the field and explore it together.

Max Needle, a UW doctoral student in earth and space sciences, used his knowledge of geology to develop the virtual field experience. He is the lead author of an article published this fall that introduces the first two sites: the Whaleback site and a fictitious site called “Fold Islands.”

“Virtual experiences provide access to more people, allow us to visit places that are completely inaccessible, and we think everyone can benefit from a new way to interact with field geology tools,” Needle said.

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Last summer, instead of the traditional six-week UW geology field course in Montana, the department held a hybrid version led by Crider and Cailey Condit, a UW assistant professor of earth and space sciences. She combined classroom instruction and digital experiences with day trips to many geological sites within driving distance of the Seattle campus.

“Moving forward, these virtual field trips will likely play a key role in making the geosciences more accessible and equitable,” Condit said. “They provide an opportunity for all students to begin experiencing remote fieldwork and learn about how vital the geological field context is to the geosciences.”

The pandemic changed the trajectory of the project. When field trips were canceled by COVID, the team put virtual reality programming on hold and focused on creating a web-based version that would be accessible to the most people as quickly as possible. Since its launch, the site has been accessed more than 1,700 times by UW undergraduates and shared with the geology teaching community around the world. The team recently completed the VR version.

Although people can now travel and gather, the team believes that virtual experiences could become part of the “new normal” for geological research and education.

“Part of improving access to the field is helping people know what to expect,” Crider said. “To the extent that we can help students anticipate both the outdoor experience and the science experience, then uncertainty and possibly anxiety is reduced and people can focus on educational goals.”

Virtual experiences allow people to visit the terrain and use common geological tools to measure angles in rock layers or the orientation of cracks that explain the landscape’s history. While the virtual option is beneficial for anyone who is at risk of traveling and accessing a remote location, it also allows all students and researchers to “dry run” and review techniques before going to a real location.

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In a web-based virtual environment, keyboard commands allow the user to navigate through the landscape. Users can try different tools for measuring distances and angles. Selecting three points creates a virtual plane and displays its orientation. Data can be downloaded into a spreadsheet or directly into a popular geological software program.

“What’s unique about this experience is that it’s open, allowing instructors to customize lessons and goals,” Crider said. “Students decide what and where to measure to answer the questions – it’s not predetermined. Making these decisions is important to learn.’

Intro video:

The virtual experience also gives the scientist superhuman abilities to instantly transport from one place to another, zooming in and out to explore the site at different scales.

“One of the great things about the game is that you can fly. There’s a little jetpack icon and then you go up in the air and all of a sudden your perspective changes and you can fast travel from place to place,” Needle said.

It also provides access to websites that have restricted or risky access.

“In Whaleback Anticline, there’s a lot of interesting, curved rock geometry exposed at 30 feet where you can’t walk without risking death,” Needle said.

The team recently demonstrated a virtual reality version of the site in Pennsylvania. Although VR requires a special headset, the field of view is larger and VR offers a sense of scale that is useful in places like the 30-foot-tall Whaleback Anticline. The interactive feature allows the user to lift the hammer and split the 3D model of the rock.

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“As a teaching assistant, I have seen students confront issues in the field that go beyond the academic aspect,” Needle said. “Or maybe someone can’t go into the terrain because they have bad asthma, or a particular spot in the terrain can only be reached with specialized climbing equipment. We think a lot of people can benefit from these tools.”

Needle taught a short course at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in October, showing other geologists how to use the UW software to create more virtual field visits. This was the third such workshop he has held, and the largest yet. All software used for UW experiences is freely available.

Projects are underway for locations in Pennsylvania, Vermont and California. Needle hopes that one day the software could be used to visit the bottom of the ocean or the surface of another planet.

“I think this is a prototype of where the field of geology could go in the future,” Needle said.

The lead designers are Jacky Mooc, a recent UW computer science and engineering graduate who is now a software engineer at Lockheed Martin, and John Akers of the UW Reality Lab. It was one of the first projects of the Reality Lab incubator, which pairs UW undergraduates with projects that need programming in augmented reality or virtual reality. The effort and necessary tools for this work were funded by the National Science Foundation, the UW Research Royalty Fund, the UW Department of Earth and Space Sciences, the UW Student Technology Fund, and the Geological Society of America.


For more information, contact Needle at [email protected]Crider v [email protected] and Condit at [email protected] .


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