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3D Virtual Geology Field Trip

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.




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