Virtual Field Trips for Undergraduate Geoscience

This is the grant proposal that provided the funding for the development of the Virtual Field Experiences

Principal Grantholder: Glenn Dolphin
Rank, Department, Faculty: Instructor / Tamaratt Chair, Department of Geoscience, Faculty of Science
Campus Phone: 220-6025

Name: Brandon Karchewski
Project Role: Co-PI
Rank, Department, Faculty: Instructor, Department of Geoscience, Faculty of Science

Name: Jennifer Cuthbertson
Project Role: Co-PI
Rank, Department, Faculty: Senior Instructor, Department of Geoscience, Faculty of Science

Name: Alex Dutchak
Project Role: Co-PI
Rank, Department, Faculty: Instructor, Department of Geoscience, Faculty of Science



Student enrollment in geoscience at the University of Calgary has approximately quadrupled over the past two decades, resulting in significant strain on departmental resources. With introductory classes ranging from 300-500 students, field trips are logistical impossibilities and the impact on the quality of the student experience in terms of learning and engagement is major and negative. Field experience is fundamental to geoscience education, but is presently lacking prior to the third year of the curriculum.

To mitigate the absence of field experience, we propose the use of Virtual Field Experiences (VFEs): web-based investigations that approximate field experiences via inquiry-based exploration of geoscientific principles. Field data ranging in scale from gigapan photographs to photomicrographs are gathered from a location of interest, and the information is displayed in a hyperlinked presentation that allows students to explore the data in a nonlinear fashion.

Our initial proposal will develop three VFEs to address a range of geoscience principles ranging from introductory to advanced levels of study. Data collection will occur during summer 2016; VFE development will occur during summer 2017, and pilot studies including efficacy assessment of the VFEs will occur during the 2017-18 academic year. 


Goals for Understanding /Improving Student Learning  

Implementation of VFEs will result in improved student ability to:

  • Develop an approach for investigating a field site
  • Explain geologic processes and their resulting geographical features
  • Identify and analyze rocks in hand sample and in the laboratory
  • Describe relationships between rock sections and outcrops
  • Visualize three-dimensional structures such as stratigraphic sequences, faults and folds
  • Engage (both individually and collaboratively) in open-ended problem solving
  • Communicate the foregoing to peers in the scientific community  


Context & Inquiry

A rapid increase in geoscience program enrolment has led to a decrease in departmental capacity to offer students field experience during their first two years. A recent curriculum review found that only two courses during the first two years of a geology degree include a field component. Instructors cite high student numbers and unpredictable weather as limiting factors for the incorporation of fieldwork in their courses.

In addition to a mastery of fundamental theoretical concepts, there are also practical skills needed for success in geoscience. These include identifying minerals and rocks, comprehending spatial and temporal scales of geologic phenomena, visualizing structures and processes created by geologic phenomena, problem solving, collaboration, and communication. Introductory courses tend to address these skills in piecemeal and often decontextualized fashion. VFEs address each of the requisite skills, and contextualize them through association with the location under investigation.

We understand that the VFE cannot and should not replace actual fieldwork. However, given the strain on departmental resources, VFEs can fill a significant void in experiential learning, and positively impact student skill development.

Two questions we would like to explore are:

  1. How can available technology on the U of C campus be leveraged to develop VFEs that result in meaningful student learning?
  2. How can VFEs augment geoscience students’ educational experiences and skill development?


Grounded in Existing Scholarship

Orion and Ault (2007) distinguish Earth science from other sciences based on its reliance on historical methods (Turner, 2013), spatial reasoning (Kastens & Ishikawa, 2006) and visual representation (Rapp & Uttal, 2006). Properly constructed and executed, VFEs can address all of these components of Earth science.

Reliance on historical methods refers to the idea that geologists investigate causal processes or phenomena that result in modern structures (Cleland, 2013). This concept can be addressed by having students use the VFEs to initiate scientific inquiries, prioritizing evidence in the creation of an explanation, connecting explanations to other scientific knowledge, and communicating/arguing the explanation to others. By posing questions such as “Why does this location look the way it does?” or, “How might you use these rocks to interpret the geologic history of the location?” students need to invoke “retroactive thinking” (Orion & Ault, 2007) to develop an explanation.

Spatial reasoning includes such tasks as describing and interpreting objects, comprehending spatial properties and processes, and using space as a metaphor for non-spatial concepts (Kastens & Ishikawa, 2006). Using VFEs, students will correlate landforms and outcrop structures/patterns, to mineral crystals and sediment grains in a similar fashion to an actual field experience. This will encourage students to synthesize two-dimensional observations into three-dimensional images, and work with maps and geologic cross sections overlain on Google Earth. This experience will enhance visualization skills and help develop students’ ability to associate sedimentary bed thickness with time – an important skill for a practicing geoscientist.

Finally, we will emphasize the visualization aspect of geoscience with technologies housed on campus such as touch tables, computer workstation classrooms, and the visualization room at the Taylor Family Digital Library (TFDL). The purpose of this aspect is to utilize the visualization technologies to “make complex information accessible and cognitively tractable” (Uttal & O'Doherty, 2008). These visualization technologies will be instrumental in availing the students of the range of data available to geoscientists (Orion & Ault, 2007), from panoramic photos of landscapes down to photomicrographs of rock thin sections.

There are a few institutions making strides in developing program scale, virtual fieldwork as a pedagogical tool (e.g. Paleontological Research Institute [PRI] -, Arizona State University -, and University of British Columbia Geography - We will be adopting a model similar to that used by PRI, making the VFEs inquiry activities as opposed to guided experiences. There has been little rigorous research on the efficacy of VFEs as a pedagogical tool (Stumpf, et al., 2008). Our project would then fill some of the gaps in this literature. Having said that, what the literature does tell us about VFEs is that students report that they enjoy them and find them a worthwhile educational experience (Arrowsmith, et al., 2005; Boyle, et al., 2007). VFEs are a mode of inclusion “into the field” for students with disabilities (Gilley, et al., 2015; Stumpf, et al. 2008). Some have described aspects of VFEs that should be considered for making them more effective teaching tools (Johnson, et al., 2011; Scarce, 1997; Stoddard, 2009).

The VFE project will build on previous work by L. Reid in the Department of Geoscience, who constructed short videos of geological features for classroom use. Our team will benefit from Dr. Reid’s experience in order to create VFEs that are inquiry-based and at the appropriate knowledge level for undergraduate students. Workshops and publications related to VFEs exist online, but there is little systematic investigation of efficacy. We stand primed to contribute to such a knowledge base.

Also see the TI Grant Research Protocol which is attached to this response.


Methods Aligned with Inquiry and Goals

The work will occur in four phases:


Phase One - Data Collection: We will collect data for three VFEs focussing on a range of geological and geophysical concepts that would allow for incorporation into multiple courses (GLGY 201, GLGY 202, GLGY 209, GOPH 351). This data collection will include Dr. Don Duggan-Haas (Director of Teacher Programs, Paleontological Research Institution, Ithaca, NY), an expert in VFE construction, who will advise us on best practices for data collection. Examples of data to be collected include low angle aerial photography, GigaPan photos, high-resolution images of hand samples, and ground penetrating radar (GPR) imaging. GigaPan photos allow one to zoom out and see the whole landscape, but also to zoom in and see specific structures. We will also collect rock samples and create thin sections for photomicrographs, to allow the data scale to range from the landscape down to a grain of sediment.

Dr. Duggan-Haas has had much field experience collecting data and formalizing VFEs for secondary school teachers in the US. Because this data collection is a field-based, experiential activity, it is important to have Dr. Duggan-Haas present in the field to demonstrate, first-hand, this data collection process. This is in line with the philosophy of experiential learning.  The investigators on this proposal (as well as other interested parties) will be in the field experiencing the data collection process from an experienced instructor. In addition, having Dr. Duggan-Hass present for several days will allow him to guide the process of data assembly into a VFE. He has great experiences with such platforms as Prezi, and Google Earth and will conduct workshops and provide immediate feedback on this assembly process for the investigators on this proposal, as well as interested parties from other departments. Understanding that part of the reason for the limited success of the previous attempts at virtual field trips within this department was a distance in communication – two groups working on the same project, but with a different end in mind – having Dr. Duggan-Haas present for the development of at least one VFE, will ensure the kind of iterative communication that is necessary for everyone to develop a shared understanding of the project. Dr. Duggan-Haas has also expressed great interest in staying involved in the project as it develops through the research phases. This continued international collaboration would be a positive for the project in that it would broaden the scope of potential users.

Finally, Zoom videoconferencing software permits multiple users, which can allow for connections to more than one classroom, or allow for two cameras in the field, where one is focused on the instructor and the other on the outcrop or other relevant feature. Users can easily take snapshots and refer to them for the purpose of highlighting particular features like rock units. This approach can help to "bring along" participants who are unable to be in the field due to distance or disability, and give those distant participants the opportunity to choose, to some degree, what they would like to further investigate in the field even if the content is not included within the related VFE. Distant participants can have people in the field behave in ways akin to robotic rovers, directing where cameras are pointed, samples are collected and more. The Paleontological Research Institution's Summer Symposium, in Ithaca, New York, is July 30 & 31, allowing a venue to connect to during the summer work. We will present from the field to symposium on Saturday, July 30.


Phase Two - Initial VFE Pilot and Data Curation: Initial data organization will be managed by the co-PIs, and a pilot version of one VFE will be tested in a classroom setting prior to full VFE roll-out. Compiling the raw field data into a hyperlinked presentation format of the VFEs will involve substantial effort in terms of data selection, maintenance and archiving. To accomplish this, we will hire a student research assistant (RA) to act as the digital curator of the VFE data. Under the supervision of the co-PIs, the RA will create the GigaPans, thin sections, and photomicrographs, compile the data from each location into a hyperlinked digital format (e.g., and develop a presentation framework for the VFEs. In addition to the VFE deliverables, this phase will involve significant skill development for the RA in terms of data collection and preparation, project management, and research communication. The Graduate Research Assistant (GRA) will be hired with the understanding that they will be expected to assume the role of Lead TA for the GLGY 201 laboratories where the results of this project will be first implemented. This will provide the GRA with an opportunity to not only enhance their technical skills throughout the development of the VFEs, but also to improve their leadership and communication skills with both their peers and undergraduate students. Additionally, the GRA will be expected to contribute to scholarly publications resulting from this project, and to help with the design and delivery of presentations at relevant conferences, such as the University of Calgary’s Conference on Postsecondary Teaching and Learning. Throughout the design and construction of the VFEs, we expect to present our findings and progress within the University of Calgary community, and the GRA will play a key role by sharing their experiences with the U of C Teaching and Learning community.


Phase Three – Full VFE Roll-Out: We will include the VFEs in courses listed in Phase One, in cooperation with the applicable instructors. We will observe student interaction when using touch tables and other visualization tools in order to ascertain strengths and limitations of the VFEs. The primary focus will be on qualitative assessment of VFE effectiveness. Following this qualitative assessment, we will revise the VFE content to address features that did not support the learning trajectory.


Phase Four – Analysis: The co-PIs will utilize pre/post instruments to quantify student-learning changes. Where data is available, we will quantify the efficacy of the VFEs for building skills relative to the status quo by comparing performance on laboratory assignments and conceptual examination questions from previous years. We will also collect and analyze qualitative data from small groups of participants to increase our understanding of student experiential learning from a phenomenographic context (Stokes, 2011). Compilation and interpretation of the quantitative and qualitative analysis will take place in the winter of 2018 followed by dissemination of results.


Potential Impacts

Development of VFEs will have both an immediate and protracted impact on the quality of the geoscience program, particularly in terms of student experiential learning:

  1. (Virtual) Place-based education provides an opportunity to learn about local geological phenomena.
  2. Students will develop an approach to fieldwork so they are better prepared for upper-level field schools.
  3. Students will develop retrospective, spatial, and visualization skills.
  4. Students will gain contextualized experience identifying rocks and minerals.
  5. The VFEs will be web-based, and available to anyone with Internet access. In the long-term, this would be a marketable asset for the geoscience program.


Dissemination Of Results

Due to the high degree of potential impact and recognition for the University of Calgary, the co-investigators are keen on making the VFEs available as open education resources (OERs). OERs are open licensed teaching and learning materials which are freely available for educators to share, remix, build-upon, and re-use in their own teaching practice, as long as the material is attributed to the original creators. Making the VFEs available as OERs will greatly increase their potential impact on student learning outside the University of Calgary. The creation and distribution of OERs is in line with the Memorandum of Understanding between the Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan Ministries of Advanced Education (signed in March, 2014).

A primary venue for dissemination of our work is the University of Calgary Conference on Learning and Teaching during spring of 2017 (VFE Data Collection) and 2018 (VFE Implementation and Efficacy). The co-PIs can organize workshops on VFE development for other field-based departments, such as bioscience, environmental science, geography and civil/environmental engineering, to help transfer acquired skills. The Faculty of Science presents Science Teaching Forums, and the Department of Geoscience has a Friday Afternoon Talk Series where we can present results at various phases of the project, as well as solicit faculty members to utilize the VFEs.

Other opportunities for dissemination include the Geological Society of America (GSA) Rocky Mountain Section meeting in Calgary (June 2017), the Geological Association of Canada’s annual GAC-MAC conference (spring 2017 and 2018), and publishing in venues, such as the Journal of Geoscience Education or Journal of College Science Teaching. Student learning research will be directed towards Science Education or the Journal of Research in Science. 


Project Timeline 

  • · April-June 2016: Project planning. The co-PIs will decide on three local areas of geological and geophysical interest that will be used for the VFEs. Completion of ethics approval application.
  • · July 2016:  Visit from advisor Dr. Don Duggan-Haas and data collection (multi-day trip to first location of interest).
  • · July-August 2016: Subsequent data collection trips to 2-3 additional locations of interest.
  • · September-December 2016: Preliminary data organization by the co-PIs and creation of a short pilot VFE for implementation in GLGY 201 in Fall semester.
  • · January-April 2017: Analysis of student quantitative and qualitative feedback on the pilot VFE. Project planning for the upcoming main data curation phase.
  • · May-August 2017: Data curation and compilation of the raw imagery into three hyperlinked presentations. Incorporation of student feedback from the pilot VFE. Presentation at conferences on VFE data collection and initial development. 
  • · September 2017-April 2018: Full roll-out of the VFEs in several different geoscience courses, both in the Fall and Winter semesters.
  • · May-August 2018: Analysis of student learning changes through comparison of examination results with previous years, and small group interviews. Dissemination of results of complete VFE project at conferences.


  • Arrowsmith, C., A. Counihan, and D. McGreevy. 2005. Development of a multi-scaled virtual field trip for the teaching and learning of geospatial science. International Journal of Education & Development using Information & Communication Technology 1 (3):42–56.
  • Boyle, A., S. Maguire, A. Martin, C. Milsom, R. Nash, S. Rawlinson, A. Turner, S. Wurthmann, and S. Conchie. 2007. Fieldwork is Good: The Student Perception and the Affective Domain. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 31 (2):299–317.
  • Cleland, C. E. (2013). Common cause explanation and the search for smoking gun. In V. R. Baker (Ed.), Rethinking the fabric of geology: Geologic Society of America Special Paper 502 (pp. 1-9). Denver, CO: Geologic Society of America.
  • Gilley, B., C. Atchison, A. Feig, and A. Stokes. 2015. Impact of inclusive field trips. Nature Geoscience 8 (8):579–580.
  • Johnson, N. D., N. P. Lang, and K. T. Zophy. 2011. Overcoming assessment problems in Google Earth-based assignments. Journal of Geoscience Education 59 (3):99–105.
  • Kastens, K. A., & Ishikawa, T. (2006). Spatial thinking in the geosciences and cognitive sciences: A cross-disciplinary look at the intersection of the two fields. Special papers(413), 53-76.
  • Orion, N., & Ault, C., R. (2007). Learning earth sciences. In S. Abell & N. Lederman (Eds.), Handbook on research on science education (pp. 653-688). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Earlbaum Associates Publishers.
  • Rapp, D. N., & Uttal, D. H. (2006). Understanding and enhancing visualizations: Two models of collaboration between earth science and cognitive science. In C. A. Manduca & D. W. Mogk (Eds.), Earth and Mind: How Geologists Think and Learn about the Earth: Geological Society of America Special Paper 413 (pp. 121-127). Denver, Co: Geological Society of America.
  • Scarce, R. 1997. Field trips as short term experiential education. Teaching Sociology 25 (3):219–226.
  • Stoddard, J. 2009. Toward a Virtual Field Trip Model for the Social Studies. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education (CITE Journal) 9 (4):412–438.
  • Stokes, A. (2011). A phenomenographic approach to investigating students' conceptions of geoscience as an academic discipline. In A. Feig & A. Stokes (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry in geoscience education research. Special Paper 474 (pp. 23-36). Boulder, CO: Geological Society of America.
  • Stumpf, R. J., J. Douglass, and R. I. Dorn. 2008. Learning Desert Geomorphology Virtually versus in the Field. Journal of Geography in Higher Education 32 (3):387–399.
  • Turner, D. (2013). Hisotrical geology: Methodology and metaphysics. In V. R. Baker (Ed.), Rethinking the fabric of geology: Geological Society of America Special Paper 502 (pp. 11-18). Denver, CO: Geological Society of America.
  • Uttal, D. H., & O'Doherty, K. (2008). Comprehending and learning from 'visualizations': A developmental perspective. In J. K. Gilbert, M. Reiner, & M. Nakhleh (Eds.), Visualization: Theory and Practice in Science Education (pp. 53-72). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.


Critical Reflection

We certainly achieved what we set out to achieve. When they are finished, reviewed and refined, we will have seven geology-focussed historical case studies. Many have already been used in some introductory classes. Once they are complete and published to the internet, we will direct others who teach secondary and post-secondary geology to use them and send us feedback on their efficacy. The structure set up in each of the cases engages students by placing them “in the history” of an idea and then asks them to use the information given to them to make decisions about new scientific understandings. We found that students readily associated many of the historical themes to their modern-day lives.

We also learned that when assignments for students are going to be used in the “real world”, as opposed to just being read by the instructor for a grade, they are more engaged with the assignment and place much more emphasis on the quality of the product. This could be used as a strategy by instructors (see “Impact on Teaching Practice” below).


Impact on Teaching Practice

I am currently developing a course that I will be teaching in Fall 2016. The course is our introductory Geology (service) course for non-science majors. I will be approaching the teaching of the course content from this historical perspective. Having these case studies will allow me to continue to implement and modify them over iterations of the course. The use of the cases has also impressed upon me the importance of small group discussion for the learning process. I’m hoping to be able to keep this aspect of the cases strong even though the class will have about 400 students in it.

Another course that I will be teaching (and will be new to the Department of Geosciences) will be a history and philosophy of geology course. Part of the assessment of the course will be students developing other historical case studies throughout the term. My experiences working with the RAs will help me to stay more organized and especially place emphasis on the schedule.

From the initial analysis of the RA meetings transcript data, one of the major themes is that when a student project has a purpose beyond just the grade (like these cases would be used by REAL instructors for REAL students), the students put much more effort and reflection into the project. Developing this kind of “real world” application for assignments in other classes may also lead to this same enhanced engagement. That is what I would look to add to the extent possible, in my classes.


Dissemination of results

The following is a list of formal conference presentations and posters given since the beginning of the project. I want to also acknowledge that we gave a number of other campus presentations at the Science Teaching Forum (STF – for faculty of science), Friday Afternoon Talk Series (FATS – for geoscience department), and Science, Technology, Environmental, and Medicine (STEMs) Colloquium, located at the U of C.

  • Braiding History, Inquiry and Model-based Learning: Highlighting Creativity in Science and Science Learning through the use of Historical Case Studies. (Dolphin, G., Hurst, E., Pertyshen, W., Wiebe, S.). 2016 University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching. 10-11 May 2016.
  • The Piltdown man. (poster) (Buryo, J.). 25th Anniversary History of Medicine Days. 11 March 2016.
  • What killed the Dinosaurs?: A geological quest. (poster) (Hurst, E.). 25th Anniversary History of Medicine Days. 11 March 2016.
  • …like hovering in a balloon high above an unknown land, which is hidden by clouds: Early to mid-20th century explorations of the sea floor. (poster) (Weibe, S.). 25th Anniversary History of Medicine Days. 11 March 2016.
  • On the Path of Discovery: The Controversy and Science Behind Chicxulub Crater (poster) (Petryshen, W.). 25th Anniversary History of Medicine Days. 11 March 2016.
  • Historical Case Studies for Teaching Geoscience: Braiding History, Inquiry, and Model-Based Learning ( Dolphin, G, Benoit, W., Burylo, J., Hurst, E., Wiebe, S.) Association for Science Teacher Educators International Conference, Reno, NV. 8-10 January, 2016.
  • Developing historical case studies for teaching geoscience concepts. ( Dolphin, G., Burylo, J., Hurst, E., Petryshen, W., Wiebe, S.) 114th Conference Science Teachers of New York State, Rochester, NY, October 2015.
  • Images in the Dark: The Changing Perception of Radiation in the Social Realm ( Dolphin, G. & Hurst, E.) GSA Annual Meeting, Baltimore, MD, October 2015.
  • The Demythologization of Wegener (Poster) (Weibe, S., Dolphin, G., Benoit, W.) 13th International History and Philosophy of Science and Science Teaching Conference. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 22-25 July 2015.
  • The Geologic Upheaval of the 1830s that No One Ever Talks About. (Poster)(Burylo, J., Dolphin, G.). 13th International History and Philosophy of Science and Science Teaching Conference. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 22-25 July 2015.
  • The demythologization of Alfred Wegener (poster) (Simon Wiebe). University of Calgary Department of Geoscience, Geoscience Research Exchange (GeoREx), Alberta, 16 April 2015.
  • The geological upheaval of the 1830s (that nobody ever talks about). (poster) (Jessica Burylo). University of Calgary Department of Geoscience, Geoscience Research Exchange (GeoREx), Alberta, 16 April 2015.
  • Radium dial workers: Radium as a useful tool and a deadly metal during the early 1920s. (Emily Hurst). University of Calgary Department of Geoscience, Geoscience Research Exchange (GeoREx), Alberta, 16 April 2015.
  • Developing Historic Case Studies for Classroom Use: A Collaborative Journey Between Students and Faculty Members. (Benoit, W., Dolphin, G., Burylo, J., Hurst, E., Wiebe, S.) University of Calgary Conference on Postsecondary Learning and Teaching, Calgary, Alberta 12-13 May, 2015.
  • Braiding history, philosophy and model-based learning in science teaching and education (Invited feature session). (DolphinG., Hurst, E., Wiebe, S. Burylo, J.). 24th History of Medicine Days. 6 March 2015.
  • Using History as a Modern Tool for Teaching Geology. GSA Annual Meeting, Vancouver British Columbia, 18-22 October 2014.
  • Earthquakes and Mountain Building – A Demonstration Class. 10 th International Conference on History of Science & Science Education. Minneapolis, MN. July 2014.
  • Developing Historical Case Studies for Teaching Geoscience Concepts. 39 th International History of Geology Symposium (INHIGEO). Pacific Grove, CA. July 2014.