Studying Geoscience in a Virtual World: Fieldwork and Fossils

Article by: Nicole Barnes
Edited by: J. D. Dixon and Harry T. Jones

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many new challenges for university students and staff, not least the move to remote lectures along with the mass cancellations of fieldwork trips and many in-person practical sessions. Staff and students have had to find new ways to adapt, coping with an ever-changing situation whilst ensuring that learning standards are still maintained. The challenges posed by the situation are particularly prevalent for those subjects which require a high proportion of practical-based learning – of which the Geosciences are no exception. So, in a world where travel is restricted and social distancing is enforced, the question is posed of how students can still gain the necessary field skills which form a major part of the degree course and are also fundamental for their future career.

Imperial College London’s Department of Earth Science and Engineering answered this dilemma in the form of an entirely remote platform, designed to allow students to develop these ever-important skills in a virtual world – an ambitious feat given that there was little time to prepare for the move to online learning.

Earth Science and Engineering Remote Classroom (ESERC) is a multi-use platform, which is run using a game engine (Unity) to host virtual educational activities that would have traditionally required in-person attendance. It involves an integrated multi-player approach to practical elements of the course such as fieldwork and specimen-based tasks. ESERC is in constant development, with a team working hard to fix any bugs as well as further improve the platform. New features are added frequently, the most recent of which is a virtual whiteboard for use when working in groups.

An image taken on the virtual fieldtrip to South Wales of the Nolton Haven locality, highlighting an entire rock exposure.
A close-up photograph showing the lithology of South Wales, featuring “Scaleasaurus”.

Within ESERC, virtual activities are developed and assigned to modules which would have previously involved key practical sessions. Whilst the tools and activities vary, the main functionality of ESERC remains consistent. Workgroups are set up for the students and allow group members to see each other’s avatar and collaborate on tasks within activities. Students and staff can communicate within the workgroups by using the chat function or by using their microphones. Students can also “raise their hand” or speak to staff members individually if they would like help with a particular task – just as they would if the activity were carried out in-person.

One of the crucial applications of ESERC is virtual fieldwork, replacing the traditional fieldwork trips which were cancelled as a result of the current situation. The approach was to create a virtual setting which allows students to practice and refine fieldwork skills such as sedimentary logging, geological mapping, and general field notebook practices. This allows students to work together and explore the geology, just as they would be doing in traditional fieldwork. By structuring the environment around real field data, the geology is brought directly to the students. The virtual fieldwork trips are geologically accurate, which means that students do not miss out on the knowledge gained by observing geological processes outside of lectures.

An image from Dunraven Bay, South Wales, showing an exposure of the Jurassic Lias.

Fieldwork trips are based around 3D exposures which can be explored using a virtual avatar alongside other students and staff. Smaller, more detailed models and photographs are integrated into the exposures as “hotspots” which can be used to highlight key information or provide a closer look at the nature of the geology being studied. The virtual environment provides a genuine fieldwork experience as the students can explore their surroundings whilst utilising the assortment of practical tools available within the platform. These aim to replicate the tools that students would normally use in the field to take measurements, such as compass clinometers and rulers.

There have been numerous successful trips run using ESERC, including the Scottish Highlands, South Wales, Assynt, and Sardinia – involving all year groups and providing a virtual alternative to the geological mapping project. Virtual fieldwork also provides new opportunities for those who would struggle to take part in traditional fieldwork trips, taking away the inherently exclusive nature of many trips and moving the focus solely onto understanding the geology of the area.

Model and associated photograph from Dunraven Bay, taken from the South Wales virtual fieldtrip.

ESERC’s functionality does not stop at fieldwork – there are, of course, many other applications for the platform. The challenges posed by the pandemic not only resulted in fieldwork cancellations but also made in-person practical sessions near-impossible to plan in an ever-changing world. Students were also displaced by the pandemic, many of them choosing to remain at home – meaning that even if it were possible to run in-person sessions, many students weren’t close enough to the university to attend them.

ESERC has become an essential tool for those modules which involved a practical component or those which required access to rock samples or particular specimens, providing a platform to host these without the need to be at the university.

A detailed 3D model of an Eucidaris echinoid specimen used for teaching. The specimen is shown alongside visualisation and measuring tools.

Palaeontology is one subject where access to specimens is vital to the learning experience. The access problem was solved by using ESERC to host countless 3D models of fossil specimens which have been integrated to form virtual practical sessions. The specimen itself can be viewed alongside tools available for the students to use to enhance their understanding such as measuring tools (scales and ruler) and visualisation tools (the ability to rotate the specimen and change the brightness). This approach has been taken to many modules which would have previously been run using physical samples from the department’s extensive rock collection.

Not only is ESERC an essential tool for specimen-based practical learning but it can also be used to enhance the learning experience, such as the use of interactive games which may be an improved version of previous paper-based exercises. This allows students to revisit the exercise during their revision and provides a more structured approach to the task. This has been applied to a second-year palaeontology module in the form of an interactive game demonstrating evolutionary concepts.

The evolution simulation interactive game built into the ESERC platform.

ESERC provides a place for virtual fieldwork to be run as well as offering a space for practical sessions to take place. In some modules, ESERC has allowed for interactive sessions beyond what would have been possible within the classroom. Whilst ESERC is not a permanent replacement for the pre-pandemic university experience, it is an invaluable virtual tool for maintaining educational standards during a time where there has been so much disruption to the norm as well as an exciting tool for enhancing the learning experience in post-pandemic times.

Acknowledgements from Nicole
I would like to thank the Department of Earth Science and Engineering for giving me permission to openly discuss ESERC, particularly Doctor Mark Sutton for providing the additional applications of ESERC to palaeontology. I would also like to thank the team behind ESERC for all their work developing the platform and for organising the virtual fieldwork trips.