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Here but still ‘there’: Using virtual-reality field trips to enrich education

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Classes may have been held remotely during the previous spring semester, but Penn State faculty members found creative ways to bring field trips to their students, even when they couldn’t necessarily bring students out into the field. Two courses in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences employed virtual reality field trips last semester to continue delivering the same high degree of academic quality that Penn State is known for around the world.

“Fully immersive virtual reality, where everything is interactive, is the ideal,” said Alexander Klippel, professor of geography and director of the Center for Immersive Experiences. “But that requires special equipment that would not work in the new remote teaching environment.”

Fortunately, Klippel’s team was already working on two virtual field trips that use what Klippel refers to as “dVR,” or desktop virtual reality. These dVR field trips – developed in collaboration with Associate Professor of Geosciences Peter La Femina for Geoscience 001, Physical Geology, and with Marcellus Center for Research and Outreach Co-Director Thomas Murphy for Geography 432, Energy Policy – are viewable on a desktop or laptop without additional equipment.  However, because of the advent of remote classes and the variability of student access to the internet and computer equipment, Klippel’s team also made the field trips available on YouTube so they were viewable on cell phones so that all students had access to this digital experience and learning environment.

Closeup of the rock layers in the Reedsville formation showing.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

“Developing an awareness of one’s surroundings is an important part of understanding our place in a global society,” said Tanya Furman, professor of geosciences who taught Physical Geology during the spring semester.  “Many students tell me that they look at the world with new eyes after an introductory course in geology.  Field trips are essential for developing a sense of scale — both temporal and spatial — and that’s so critical to understanding our world.”

In previous research into dVR field trips, the team found that students learned equally as well from a virtual field trip as from a, feet-on-the-ground field experience.      

Field trips are usually scheduled for early fall and late spring, but weather still often interferes.  However, it never rains or snows on a VR field trip.  The Geoscience 001 field trips take place at outcrops or road cuts along the side of roadways and are in 360-degree desktop virtual reality.  The trips contain some 3D VR segments where interactive measuring of stratigraphic profiles and saving results become possible.

La Femina said that these virtual field trips were the result of hard work and collaboration between multiple offices across the University.

“This truly has been a collaborative effort between the Departments of Geography and Geosciences, as well as Teaching and Learning with Technology and other groups across campus and the Commonwealth Campuses,” said La Femina. 

Energy Policy, taught by Jennifer E. Baka, assistant professor of geography, does not usually have a field trip component, but she invited Murphy to give students a virtual tour. Arranging trips to energy sties, “which tend to be off the beaten track,” can be difficult, Baka said, but these virtual reality offerings have helped make these sites more accessible for students.

“The students do enjoy the tours,” Baka said. “It makes energy systems a bit more ‘real’ to them.”

3D image of rocks with measuring tool

3D image of rock layers with interactive ruler to measure individual layers.

IMAGE: Patrick Mansell, Penn State

Students virtually visited a natural gas wellhead and a solar power array – both trips that are much more easily accomplished virtually than in-person, making VR field trips an important educational opportunity even as Penn State prepares to resume in-person classes. This year’s tour allowed students to wander 360 degrees through certain components of the trip to follow their own interests with the subject matter and not just follow the tour guide.

“I participated in the tour this year,” said Klippel.  “Students could follow from location to location, but had agency over where to look.  I wasn’t just staring. I was able to be active and independent of what the instructor wanted me to look at.”

This field trip is not yet complete. Baka said she would like to see a virtual reality field trip that covers the full lifecycle perspective of the energy systems, from extraction to end use. That is, she envisions being able to see silica mined, transported, processed and converted to solar cells or the components of a fracking well pad before being transported and assembled, then drilled and in production.

Because these various aspects of energy systems are not necessarily located together, class trips to the various locations would be impossible.  Given that, Baka believes the VR field trips allow students to understand better the energy systems using this (virtual) hands-on educational approach.

“I really liked the VR tour,” said Milan Liu, a senior with a double major in international politics and geography and an honors student.  “I was honestly a little bit hesitant at first, since I feel like experiences like this can often be difficult to do without having technical difficulties. However, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the experience. It’s really informative to be able to ‘see’ a space or project like fracking, and gives you more insight into what energy production looks like on the ground and in our communities.”

One student praised the VR fields trips for making it possible to get a hands-on look at hard-to-reach locations.

“[The VR tour] allows for easy access to areas that otherwise would be off-limits,” said Seamus Gibbons, a fifth year senior with a double major in energy business finance and geography.  “Most of the time, energy resources are on private lands and inaccessible to the public.”

Virtual field trips are a key component of Klippel’s research and an ongoing team effort.  Jan Oliver Wallgrün, senior research associate, is leading developments for energy, fire ecology and other 360 tours; Jiayan Zhao and Mahda Bagher, graduate student in geography; Pejman Sajjadi, postdoctoral researcher in geography; and Bart Masters, xR developer, are actively adding new designs to improve virtual field trips.

Klippel also participated in national efforts to realize remote learning for place-based education. Integral to Earth sciences, biology and other subjects, summers are spent doing fieldwork.  This summer, due to COVID-19, institutions cancelled field schools, internships and other field opportunities. Klippel led the Working with Virtual World Technologies working group, for the Designing Remote Field Experiences project team, in a collaboration between the National Association of Geoscience Teachers and the International Association for Geoscience Diversity, to create substitutes for this summer’s students.

“We Are” stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment.




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