Bringing the field to students with 'Virtual Field Geology'

Bringing the field to students with ‘Virtual Field Geology’

Newswise – University of Washington geologists had been building computerized field experiments long before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Juliet Crider, an associate professor of earth and space science at UW, first won a grant from the National Science Foundation to send a former graduate student and a drone to photograph an iconic geologic site in Pennsylvania and pilot a new approach to field geology.

His team has now completed a virtual field trip to this site, the Whaleback Anticline, where decades of coal mining have exposed 300 million-year-old folds in bedrock. A pilot version of the web tool has been used during the pandemic, and a version that lets people wear virtual reality headsets to explore the geological site has just been launched. A UW field class used both tools in an undergraduate summer course that, for the first time, mixed virtual and in-person field trips.

The UW Virtual Field Geology project has many goals: to make field geology experiences accessible to more people; document geological sites likely to be threatened by erosion or development; offer virtual “empty run” experiences that complement on-the-job courses and help new students acclimate to the field; and to allow scientific collaborators to virtually visit a field site and explore it together.

Max Needle, a UW doctoral student in earth and space sciences, used his background in geology to help develop the virtual field experiments. He is the main author of an article published this fall which presents the first two sites: the Whaleback site and a fictional site called “Fold Islands”.

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

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, UW Assistant Professor of Earth and Space Sciences. He combined classroom instruction and digital experiences with day trips to the many geological sites within driving distance of the Seattle campus.

“In the future, these virtual field trips are likely to play a key role in making geoscience more accessible and more equitable,” Condit said. “They offer all students the opportunity to begin experimenting with fieldwork remotely and to discover how vital the geological context of the field is to geosciences.”

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

Even though people can now travel and congregate, the team believe virtual experiences could be part of a “new normal” for geology research and education.

“Part of improving access to the pitch is helping people know what to expect,” Crider said. “Because we can help students anticipate both the outdoor experience and the science experiment, uncertainty and perhaps anxiety is reduced, and people can focus on learning goals. ‘learning.”

Virtual experiences allow people to visit the field site and use common geological tools to measure angles in rock layers or the orientation of fissures that explain the history of a landscape. While a virtual option benefits anyone facing travel and access to a remote field site, it also allows all students and researchers to have a “test” experience and review techniques before moving on. reach the actual location.

In the web-based virtual experience, keyboard commands allow the user to navigate the landscape. Users can try various tools to measure distances and angles. Selecting three points creates a virtual plane and displays its orientation. Data can be downloaded into a spreadsheet or directly into popular geology software.

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

Intro video:

The virtual experience also gives the scientist superhuman powers to instantly jump from place to place, zoom in and out to explore a site at different scales.

“One of the cool 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. to another,” Needle said.

It also provides access to sites where access is restricted or risky.

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

The team recently presented the virtual reality version of the Pennsylvania site. Although VR requires a special headset, the field of view is wider and VR provides a useful sense of scale at sites such as the 30-foot-tall Whaleback Anticline. An interactive feature allows the user to take a rock hammer and open a 3D model of a rock.

“As a teaching assistant, I’ve seen students face challenges in the field that go beyond the academic aspect,” Needle said. “Or maybe someone can’t go on the pitch because they have bad asthma, or a particular site is only accessible with specialist climbing gear. We believe many people can benefit from these tools.

Needle hosted a short course at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in October, showing other geologists how to use UW software to create other virtual tours in the field. It was the third such workshop he had given, and the largest so far. All software used for UW experiments is available free of charge.

Plans are underway for sites in Pennsylvania, Vermont and California. Needle hopes that one day the software can be used to visit the ocean floor or the surface of another planet.

“I think it’s a prototype of where the field of geology might go in the future,” Needle said.

The main 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 matches UW undergraduate students with projects that require programming in augmented reality or virtual reality. The effort and 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]screaming that [email protected] and condition to [email protected] .

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