Thursday, April 28, 2011

On Crafting Virtual Fieldwork

How do you make a virtual fieldwork experience (VFE)? If you teach Earth or environmental science or history, you've almost certainly already virtually transported your students to another place. Since the invention of the story, teachers have taken learners to places virtually. Over the centuries, technologies have changed, making occasional leaps in the way we can represent the places we wish to teach about. The printing press, the slide projector, film and television, and the personal computer are perhaps the biggest leaps of technological representation used in the teaching of Earth and environmental science.

Computers have made it vastly easier to make virtual environments explorable as opposed to places told about, but it's always been doable. All you really need is a picture and you can begin to productively wonder, "Why does this place look the way it does?" As we noted in our opening post that question drives our work.

We want to perhaps start with wondering productively about a picture or a set of pictures, but we want to use the rich technologies available today to leap beyond that. This post is intended to help educators take a jump in that generative direction. The post addresses aspects of why to create virtual fieldwork and some about how to do so.

Why start locally?
One of the ultimate goals of this work is to have the learner being able to "read" landscapes and tell the stories that brought those landscapes about. We believe that the most logical place to start work on this is the place outside your door. We want to start with the local and familiar so that we can build on things our students know, work on problems that are relevant, and, then use those deepened understandings of the local environment to better understand the global environment.

We also want to start locally as we want the act of preparing the VFE to be a step toward engaging learners in actual fieldwork. While it's possible to develop a VFE without going to the actual field site (this is how many NASA scientists do their work), our work begins with the VFE author doing actual fieldwork. That gives the teacher/author a nudge to explore the local environment with an eye toward doing actual fieldwork. In other words, developing virtual fieldwork for your students is a logical precursor for doing actual fieldwork with your students.

Some tools to get you started
Toward that end, we've developed a set of questions that we think can be asked of any site. The questions support the project's driving question, again: Why does this place look the way it does? Those supporting questions are shown in the graphic organizer below and included in the packet available here. You'll also find them in a checklist at the end of the post.

Figure 1: The VFE Template's Graphic Organizer. All photos in shown in Figure 1 are from Oklahoma's Arbuckle Mountains. You can download the template as a PowerPoint or Keynote file here and replace the photos with those from any site. The questions are intentionally generic so that they may be asked of any site. They may also be changed to highlight special features of your field site.

The template that includes this graphic organizer is a PowerPoint presentation, but it's neither intended to be a presentation nor is it intended that PowerPoint be the only software used in crafting VFEs. What does it mean to say it's a presentation that's not a presentation? For this use, we're repurposing PowerPoint for students to view individually or in pairs at computers, not for the teacher to show them on the front wall of the classroom. The students should be able to explore the PowerPoint rather than be stepped through it.

The PowerPoint is non-linear. Actual fieldwork may have linear aspects, but it is also rich with choices in directions to go, both in terms of your actual movement and in terms of what scientific content you might explore. We want to replicate that choice within virtual fieldwork. The arrows and boxes in the graphic organizer are live links within the PowerPoint that take you to other pages with more photos and more questions and sometimes other resources. Google Earth offers more choice in direction and is a powerful tool for VFEs. 

This post is primarily about the conceptual approach we encourage, with glimpses of the technological approach. To learn more about technologies used in the VFE preparation and use, explore, especially the Resource Pages.

You can use the graphic organizer above as a conceptual checklist for what you want to address in your VFE. You might want to start with a focus on a particular topic, rather than the attempt to address everything these questions target, but we hope over time, you'll incorporate regular fieldwork (both real and virtual) into your teaching. In a typical Earth science course, the majority curriculum plays out in some meaningful way outside your window.

We also have the questions available in a student worksheet. It's in Microsoft Word format so that it can be customized to delete questions that are outside of the current focus of the class or add questions about specific features of the site.

And, here they are in a simple list:

For all of the following questions: 
  • How do you know? (What evidence is there?) 
  • What does it tell you about past environments? 
  • What does it imply about the future? 
Describe the shape of the land. 
  • Are there mountains, valleys, or hills? 
  • What are the valley shapes? 
  • What can form valleys? 
  • What can cause mountains or hills to form? 
  • Are the mountains or hills young or old? 
  • What role do tectonics play in shaping the site? 
What effects has water had on the landscape? 
  • Is water depositing material, eroding material, or both? 
  • Is the action of water primarily chemical, primarily physical, or both chemical and physical? 
What effect has the climate had on the landscape?
  • Was the past climate different? 
  • What factors may have been affected or caused by climate? 
What does the arrangement of the rocks indicate about past conditions?
  • Do the rocks seem to form a sequence? 
  • Where would you find the oldest rocks? 
  • Youngest rocks? 
  • Are there different kinds of rocks at different outcrops? 
What types of rock are there and what do they indicate about past conditions? Sediments & Sedimentary Rocks
  • Is it clastic or organic/chemical? 
  • If clastic, what is the grain size? 
  • If organic, what minerals is it made out of? 
  • Are there fossils? 

  • Is it foliated or non-foliated? 
  • What was the parent rock? 
  • Did the rock form above or below ground? 
  • Is it felsic or mafic? 
What effects has life, including human life, had on the landscape?
  • How have plants shaped the landscape? 
  • How have animals generally, and humans in particular, changed the landscape? 
  • On what scale?

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