Geology Field Trip Assignment

Project Leader: Shailey Minocha

Project overview and objectives

As a part of the Open Science Laboratory at The Open University (OU), UK (, we have developed a browser-based 3D simulation of a Geology field trip to Skiddaw using the Unity software ( We have used a digital elevation model derived from airborne LiDAR data and terrain imagery to reconstruct the landscape faithfully enough to provide a real sense of presence for the user. The application is based around a 10km x 10km low to medium detail model of the terrain around Skiddaw with overlaid photogrammetry-derived mesh and textual imagery, and augmented with in-built Unity terrain and flora. The sense of immersion is heightened by ambient audio recorded on location, as well as spoken audio for teaching content. The 3D application consists of six sites in the Skiddaw area where each site is typically no more than 50m x 50m. The Skiddaw field trip in the Lake District has been an integral part of Earth Science teaching at the OU. Students at the OU carry out a field trip with their Geology educators in the Lake District and can also learn about it through activities that are provided on a DVD.

The primary objective of developing a 3D simulation has been to provide students and educators with a visual and spatial experience that is not constrained by the ‘flat’ 2D user interface of a DVD or a 2D representation via images, videos, etc. on the Web. Instead, we want to give students an authentic and realistic 3D interactive simulation with a high degree of fidelity to the actual environment; the aim being to provide an immersive experience to the users through sense of space and sense of presence. Further, the environment is a multi-user avatar based environment and facilitates real-time interaction and collaboration. The virtual embodiment in the form of avatars and the presence of other users as avatars in the same environment helps give a sense of co-presence and provide opportunities for collaborative learning. The interactions and the learning activities within the 3D environment are designed to mirror the experience of a real field trip – while simultaneously exploiting opportunities to integrate activities beyond fieldwork and opening up new opportunities for educators and students.

Numerous virtual field trips, of varying degrees of complexity, exist in the earth and environmental sciences, but often they are simple text and image-based learning resources for a series of locations on web pages linked to a static map. Users generally navigate by conventional online interfaces (for example, clicking links to jump back and forth), and as a result feel somewhat disconnected from the environment they are studying. This makes the engagement a more arduous, conscious effort for the students and educators. An authentic immersive environment will bring many benefits for users: a heightened sense of presence and involvement with the environment and the embedded learning resources; more focused engagement; and intrinsic encouragement of students’ observation and exploration skills. 

The 3D virtual geology trip has been designed to provide:

  • A rich assemblage of linked learning resources within the context of a real-world landscape
  • A convenient place for students to engage with innovative practical science activities
  • A personal learning environment that will help internalise the sense of exploration
  • A group learning environment and, hence, a social experience – resulting in the building of team spirit and educator-student relationships
  • The capability for conducting activities above and beyond what is feasible during a real field trip – for instance, aerial fly-throughs for panoramic views, seasonal changes, scale changes from regional geology to close-up and microscopic views of rocks, or cutaways into a mountainside to see the geology beneath
  • An opportunity for contextual learning, that is, being able to explore, observe and gather data within the context, e.g. using a virtual microscope
  • A venue for development of fieldwork skills: investigating rock characteristics, observations, note-taking, sketching, synthesis, comparison of localities
  • A virtual environment that is complementary to real field trips such as for enhancing briefings and de-briefings of real field trips; or to facilitate completing of observations and discussions after a real field trip; or allow multiple virtual visits for getting acquainted with the landscape and its geology
  • Wider access: it may help to overcome the disadvantages faced by mobility impaired students, or students who are in other home-bound situations; or where there are too many students in a class and a real field trip may not be feasible; or to facilitate international participation of students and experts

Although a 3D virtual trip may not be able to recreate all the challenges of doing science in the field, such as encountering unfavourable weather conditions or learning about the limitations of conducting observations and measurements in a real field environment, it will give students the opportunity to carry out geology fieldwork as an interactive and immersive experience.

View poster


The objective of Geology 360 is to provide students who are beginning their study of geology with field experience observing rocks, structural features, geological processes and their results, and the evidence upon which geologic history is written. Students will learn rudimentary field techniques during the exercises that are the major work of the course. As a result of this course, students will have mental images and experience that will help them to understand concepts and definitions in all future geology classes. Course readings are intended to provide background for geological features they observe and to review material discussed in introductory geology classes that is germane to the areas they visit. Writing assignments encourage the student to understanding the features observed and the assigned reading.

Specifically, the course will examine structural, lithologic, and geomorphologic features along the trip route. Reading assignments and discussion will emphasize geologic history and tectonics of Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming: the Great Plains and several tectonic provinces of the east-central part of the mountainous west of the US. Students will examine Pennsylvanian and Cretaceous rocks in a number of places and discuss the tectonic, environmental, and climatic controls on their character. The class will discuss use of features in rocks, including sedimentary, plutonic, volcanic, and metamorphic rocks, to interpret aspects of their origin and history. We will observe, illustrate, and discuss effects of erosion and deposition by water, ice, and wind.


Geology 360 is a two-week field trip visiting sites in Kansas, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and returning through Nebraska. Travel is by state vans. The group camps in public campgrounds except for two nights in Lake City, Colorado, where the group will stay in cabins.

Who Should Take this Course?

This course is required in all undergraduate degree programs in geology at KU, and the design of the course emphasizes the needs of this group of students. Several other groups of students will find this course appropriate: beginning graduate students in geology who are not from the US or who do not have undergraduate degrees in geology, geology minors, students majoring in Earth and space sciences in the School of Education, students studying physical geography, and students in civil or petroleum engineering. Students in any discipline are welcome, provided they have passed the prerequisite course.

Geology 360 is also listed as Geology 591, Field Investigation for Teachers, which allows students to earn graduate credit.


The prerequisite is an introductory course in geology, such as Physical Geology, Introduction to Geology, Historical Geology, or Earthquakes and Natural Disasters. Students will find that Geology 103 (Laboratory in Geology) is helpful, but not necessary.


This is a two-credit course, but is classified as an off-campus course, so that all students pay the off-campus tuition rate. In addition, there is a course fee of $150, which helps defray costs of gasoline, camping fees, admissions, and other costs directly associate with conducting the course. Students must provide their own food.

Scholarships and paid positions as drivers are available. Much of the support for this trip, including the scholarships, comes from the Geology Associates Program of the Department of Geology and the KU Endowment Association.


The trip is scheduled for the last two full weeks before classes start at KU in August (KU Classes generally begin on the third or fourth Thursday in August; Geology 360 is scheduled to return to Lawrence on the previous Sunday).

More Information

A preliminary meeting of likely trip participants is held during the second or third week in March. At that time, a list of required materials will be distributed as will be applications for driver positions and scholarships. Those applications are due about April 1 each year.

To be placed on a list of prospective students, to be notified of the initial meeting in March, or for answers to questions, contact:

A.W. Walton
318 Lindley Hall
Department of Geology
The University of Kansas
785 864-2726

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