3D Model of outcrop in Drumheller

Virtual Field Experiences

Bringing the field to you

Why Virtual Field Experiences?

For the past several years, our introductory geology courses have been so big (400-500 students) that having field trips became a logistical impossibility. In fact, it was not until the beginning of their third year that our geology students were getting their first field experiences. We decided that we needed to change this.

We wanted to help students develop some of the process skills of fieldwork without actually having to be in the field to get them. Recent developments in technology have pushed the tools for teaching in directions that were unthought of even a decade ago. One of these is the advancements in global positioning systems, virtual reality, and photographic imagery, to name a few. This has allowed for the development and use of virtual outcrop models (VOMs) and giving students virtual field experiences (VFEs).

Many have written about the importance of field experiences for geology students. In no way were we seeking to replace actual field experiences, only supplement student instruction to fill a hole in instruction. However, especially in light of the recent global pandemic which canceled many geology field schools, the VOMs and VFEs developed for students gave at least some continuity in these unprecedented times.

VFEs also allow a more inclusive setting for those who are differently-abled for whom travel into the field might not be a possibility. Using VOMs and VFEs has become very popular due to the circumstances surrounding their recent development, however, there is very little research on their efficacy as a pedagogical tool.

We are seeking to see how students use VOMs as a tool for learning, and how VOMs might fit into the overall instructional picture.

The Virtual Field Experience Library


These are the VFEs and VOMs that we developed. All of them are located in Alberta. Please feel free to use them in your teaching.


Mount Yamnuska

Mount Yamnuska

Driving west from the city of Calgary on the Trans-Canada Highway, Mount Yamnuska is the first peak as one enters the Front Ranges.

Saskatchewan Glacier

Saskatchewan Glacier

The Saskatchewan Glacier is located approximately a four-hour drive north and west of Calgary on the Icefields Parkway through Banff National Park

East Coulee

East Coulee

The badlands of the Red Deer River Valley are a two-hour drive to the east of Calgary, where ice and melt water from the last glacial maximum have carved through the overlying glacial sediments into the flat-lying Mesozoic strata, which include fluvial sands and silts, volcanic ash beds, tongues of marine shale, and plenty of dinosaur fossils.

Our Research Findings


Virtual field experiences in introductory geology: Addressing a capacity problem, but finding a pedagogical one


Abstract: Recent literature has demonstrated the importance of fieldwork in geology. However, as resources become scarce, field experiences are often targeted for cuts. This was the case at the University of Calgary when massive enrollments placed a tremendous burden on resources. In courses throughout, field trips and other excursions were eliminated, making it so students do not have any field experiences until their third year. In response, we have developed three virtual field experiences (VFEs) of geologically relevant locations near Calgary. A burgeoning technology, VFEs offer advantages of convenience and versatility when compared to actual field trips. Our VFEs comprise drone-captured images used to form high-resolution 2-D photomosaics and 3-D computer models. We piloted one VFE in an introductory geology course. We wanted to understand how students engaged with the models so that we could make the VFE as effective as possible. Observing student engagement over two iterations allowed us to make changes to the activity. We found that students had difficulties with the VFE’s open endedness. They also demonstrated difficulty with the relationship between observations and inferences. This is indicative of a broader issue with how geology (or science in general) is taught. Traditional instruction in geology places great emphasis on the “what” of geology as opposed to the “how.” We contend that teaching geology with more emphasis on how geology works will help students develop a better understanding of the relationship between inference and observation, enhancing their fieldwork and their understanding of science.