Resources for Virtual Fieldwork

Frank D. Granshaw

Artemis Science / Portland Community College / Portland State University

On-line VFEs | VFE construction (tips and tools) | VFE construction with tablets | Presentations and articles


On-line Virtual Field Experiences for Geoscience Education

Tools for constructing your own VFEs

  • GoogleEarth - The most popular of the geospatial viewers available on the web. With an extensive database and features such as streetview, GE is highly used by geoscience educators, including those interested in virtual fieldwork. With a minimal knowledge of GE you can imbed photos, maps, and data into the virtual globe.
  • Google Tour Builder - A tour builder that uses a Google Earth plugin that allows users to "travel" through a story. In many ways the GTB is much easier to use to create VFEs than Google Earth is.
Using Google Earth to Construct a virtual Field Environment

Three of the tools within Google Earth that are most useful for making your own virtual field environment are placemarks, overlays, folders, and movie tours.

  • Placemarks are used to identify specific locations in Google Earth. In addition to a marker, placemarks also include comments balloons that pop up when you click on a placemark. Text, photos, and video can easily be added to the balloons. These can in turn be hyperlinked to web pages to provide more robust information such as data collected by students in the field and interactive panoramas providing users with a ground level view of a site. Many mobile apps such as Photosynth provide users with relatively simple ways of linking photos and other information that they gather in the field to Google Earth.
  • Overlays are maps or photos that are layered onto Google Earth. These can be graphics files that are imported into GE and draped on the virtual landscape (e.g. Geologic Maps or aerial photographs), or they can be polygons made by the user to define certain areas (e.g. the boundary lines of your home). Two sources of ready made overlays are GPS Visualizer (A source of topographic maps, aerial photography, and satellite imagery that can be overlaid onto GE) and KML Geology (A repository of geological maps adapted to Google Earth from SanDiego State University's department of geology).
  • Folders are containers for placemarks and overlays that all you to organize all the various resources related to a specific place into a single container. In many respects folders act like individual placemarks in that clicking on them in side bar for GE zooms to the place or places contained in the folder. Most importantly they are a critical organization tool and a way of saving groups of placemarks and overlays onto your hard drive, rathering than cluttering up the side bar and slowing GE to a crawl.
  • Movie tours are user defined fly-throughs of selected areas in GE. Though Google has available "Studio" software for producing elaborate tours (usually at elaborate prices), you can easily produce your own tour by selecting a folder and click on the "Play Tour" icon at the bottom of the "Places" panel in the sidebar.

Introduction to Google Earth - A lab designed for geology courses at two of PCC's campuses

The handouts for these labs are provided as a word documents so they can be adapted to your own area. Sylvania campus - Lab handout / GE placemark files for this lab. Southeast Center - Lab handout / GE placemark file.


Examples of VFEs constructed using Google Earth

Queen's Laundry - The virtual field environments created by participants and staff of the Astrobiology in Yellowstone course 2009 and 2011.

Glaciers and shorelines in the Pacific Northwest during the Pleistocene - Google Earth based discussion activities developed for G207: Geology of the Pacific Northwest. In addition to using placemarks and overlays to define areas of interest, each area includes a guided inquiry style question set that is imbedded in the landscape.

Geology of accreted terranes - More Google earth based discussion activity sets developed for G207. These take advantage of GE's extensive street view coverage and placemarks to produce a "quick and dirty" VFEs.


  • Google Map | Views - An on-line system for creating spherical panoramas and panoramic tours.
  • Virtual Ocean - An alternative geospatial viewer produced by staff at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (Columbia University). Like GE, VO is an interactive virtual globe. The main difference between the two is the extensive amount of earth science data that can be accessed by the viewer.
  • GeoMapApp - Another earth science exploration and visualization tool produced by the folks at Lamont-Doherty. Though designed primarily as a viewer, GeoMapApp does have tools that make it possible to create derivative maps (e.g. contour and shaded relief maps) that can be exported to both GE and VO.
  • DoubleTake - A macintosh based program for creating panoramic pictures that can be used in a virtual field environment. DoubleTake is produced by Echo One.
  • Windows Live Photo Gallery - A panorama creation tool for Windows based computers produced by Microsoft.
  • Photosynth - An application for mobile devices that produces low-resolution panoramas that can be easily linked to Google Earth.
  • Ricoh Theta - A "point and click" camera that produces spherical panoramas that can be linked to Google Earth and Google Maps.
  • GigiPan - High resolution panoramas that can be added to Google Earth

Constructing VFEs with tablets

During that past few years computer technology has improved to the point where it is possible to build fairly robust VFEs using only a tablet. The principle advantages of creating a VFE in this way include the following...

  • Much of the construction can be done in the field reducing the time required for construction.
  • Many of the apps used in this construction are fairly simple to use.
  • The fact that many tablets come equipped with relatively good quality cameras, GPS, magnetic compasses, and motion sensor makes it easy to produce georeferenced photography, including spherical and cylindrical panoramas.
  • The existance of a great many peripherals (e.g. clip on microscopes and zoom lens, wifi enabled data loggers) make them uniquely suited for field work by significantly expanding the kinds of data that can be accumulated by a single, highly portable tool.

For those of us who are science educators, what is significant about all this is that using tablets to construct VFEs means that our students can join in the process. Though there are still limitations to what can be created with this technology, the simplicity and speed of the technology opens up significant possibilities for helping our students learn field science in a way that is both engaging and allows them to focus on the field science rather than having to becoming multi-media experts.

Tablets in the Field: Tools for Student-Created Virtual Field Environments an article published in In the Trenches - October 2013, Vol. 2, No. 4 page 2-4

Here are some tools for getting you started. Stay tuned for a future article on this page on the how-to of constructing

Here are a couple of examples of simple VFEs made almost entirely on an iPad mini. Each of the files is a set of Google Earth placemarks. So make sure that your device has Google Earth mobile installed.

Note for iPad users use Safari when downloading these files.

Virtual Field Environments used for Research

  • Adviser: Immersive Field Work for¬†Planetary¬†Geoscientists - An article by researchers at Brown University (Providence RI), Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena CA), and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (Livermore CA) about a 3D visualization system that enables planetary geologist to view and analyze data in much that same way that field geologists collect data from an outcrop.
  • Cybermapping Lab: University of Dallas Texas - Another 3D visualization system for geology. This group focuses on terrestrial geology and does considerable work on visualizing what lies below the surface.

Presentations and Articles

Virtual Fieldwork: Fieldwork without the muddy boots? - An introduction to virtual fieldwork presented to G550 (Middle School Earth Space Science) at Portland State University on February 3, 2011. Eliot Glacier on Mt. Hood Oregon and South Falls at Silver Falls State Park Oregon - Media for the discussion activities that were part of this talk.

GeoCognition and Virtual field environment design - An introduction to the pedagogy of virtual field environment design and use. Presented at a short course on virtual fieldwork at the 2011 Geological Society of America national conference in Minneapolis Minnesota. Shore Acres Oregon - Media for the discussion activities that were part of this talk.

Google Earth for Teaching Earth Science and Beyond - An introduction to Google Earth presented at a workshop for Portland Community College faculty in Winter term 2012.

Use of a Mars Analog Virtual Field Environment (MAVFE) in STEM Teacher and Student Astrobiology - An outline of the PSU Astrobiology in Yellowstone experience (summer 2009 and 2011) presented at the 2012 AbSciCon conference in Atlanta Georgia.

Queen's Laundry, Yellowstone National Park: Geologic Background - On-line resources for Astrobiology in Yellowstone 2011. This includes Google Earth placemarks for the VFEs produced by the students and staff in the 2009 and 2011 session.

POGIL in the Field - Resources for a workshop aimed at developing guided inquiry field activities at the 2011 Northwest Regional conference for POGIL. These resources included a virtual environment of the target field site to give participants a pre-fieldwork view of the site.


Contact Information - Frank D. Granshaw -
Created June 2012 | Modified 2 May 2014