Virtual field trips provide ASU students with immersive online learning environment

Bruce uses a camera to capture images of the Grand Canyon as he floats in a raft along the Colorado River. (Photo courtesy of Steven Semken) Bruce uses a camera to capture images of the Grand Canyon as he floats in a raft along the Colorado River. (Photo courtesy of Steven Semken)

ASU’s immersive virtual field trips, commonly referred to as iVFTs, are improving the accessibility of a more engaging, comprehensive educational experience for University students enrolled in iCourses, as well as the general public through an online library.

Ariel Anbar, a biogeochemist and professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, has been responsible for creating the virtual field trips and lab settings popularly used in many online classrooms at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School of Human Evolution and Social Change and other ASU colleges.

“Technology is evolving in ways that allow us to teach in new ways that are sometimes better,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to say that (as opposed) to sitting in a lecture hall and having a teacher show you a bunch of slides of a location, we need to actually explore it in a virtual space like this. It’s a superior educational experience, and you get a much better sense of what the location is all about.”

The project began five years ago, funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, and has grown tremendously since then. ASU’s online library of iVFTS contains 14 unique locations, with more coming soon.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute recognized Anbar in September for being both an outstanding scientist and an outstanding undergraduate professor. He was named among 15 others as an honorary HHMI Professor, and along with this recognition received a $1 million grant to continue his work.

The money will be spent creating a series of six iVFTs to sites around the world that are significant to the “history of life and environment on Earth,” Anbar said.

“Even most scientists that study Earth history never get a chance to see most of these sites,” he said.

ASU education technologist Geoffrey Bruce is responsible for acquiring and assembling footage of iVFT locations to create immersive virtual spaces. (Photo courtesy of Steven Semken) ASU education technologist Geoffrey Bruce is responsible for acquiring and assembling footage of iVFT locations to create immersive virtual spaces. (Photo courtesy of Steven Semken)

Among these half dozen sites are two locations in Australia: one that shows the earliest known fossil evidence of animal life on Earth and another that shows what life may have been like in Earth’s oceans 2.5 billion years ago, when the environment contained little oxygen.

The Permian Triassic mass extinction that occurred roughly 250 million years ago is a topic Anbar said he wishes to explore at another iVFT site, probably in China.

“I think there’s no substitute for actually going to one of these field sites, but the reality is most people will never be able to,” Anbar said. “It’s too expensive, it’s too far, it’s too time-consuming, and there are people who just don’t enjoy doing that kind of thing.”

Anbar said even important scientific locations close to home are sometimes difficult to visit.

“The Grand Canyon’s not far, but the Grand Canyon virtual field trip takes you all the way down the river,” he said. “If you want to do that trip for real, you’ve got to spend about a week of your life, and you’ve got to be willing to live in pretty primitive conditions down there.”

For ethnogeologist and geoscience education researcher Steven Semken, who teaches at the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the Grand Canyon iVFT project was a maiden voyage into the universe of iVFT creation.

He said he enjoyed the experience and looks forward to becoming involved with more iVFT projects in the future.

“I’m a field geologist, so I like being out in the field,” he said. “I think being out there and looking at the environment, trying to figure out how best to capture it, is what I like (to do).”

Semken said he would be presenting ASU’s iVFT technology this weekend on a digital poster in Vancouver, British Columbia, at the 2014 conference of the Geological Society of America.

“Virtual field trips, in one form or another, have been around for a number of years — ever since they’ve had the technology to do it,” Semken said. “Some of them have been very simple. ... Some have included video and some have included audio, but we think the combination we have … is among the most advanced — if not the most advanced — there are at this point.”

He said he hoped other universities around the country would be able to learn from ASU’s virtual field trip model.

An iVFT to Teotihuacan, Mexico, teaches users about early civilizations. (Photo courtesy of Steven Semken) An iVFT to Teotihuacan, Mexico, teaches users about early civilizations. (Photo courtesy of Steven Semken)

“I have yet to see (a virtual field trip model) that is as comprehensive and as immersive as ours is,” Semken said. “It’s the difference between open inquiry and guided inquiry, and we allow both.”

ASU education technologist Geoffrey Bruce, a doctoral student at the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences studying exploration systems design, has played an enormous role creating ASU’s advanced iVFT format.

He uses a camera fitted with a fisheye lens to capture immersive, dome-like images of iVFT locations and a variety of more complicated techniques to assemble detailed virtual environments that combine visual elements with curricular information.

“One of the most challenging parts would be making sure the context being explored and captured in the field matches that which meets the needs of the teachers using it in their classroom,” he said in an email.

However, Bruce said he loves what he does and that his work is very rewarding.

“The iVFTs allow teachers and students to travel to remote, inaccessible, scientifically significant regions of our planet to interact with content that they might never have had the opportunity to explore,” he said.

 

Reach the reporter at megannphillips@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @megannphillips

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