As colleges were shutting down around the country, the National Association of Geoscience Teachers met over Zoom to grapple with the disruption. The biggest challenge posed to the group was how to stage summer field camps. FLC's Geosciences Department Chair and Professor Kim Hannula was in a breakout group tasked with defining why field camps are so valuable and how essential takeaways could be captured in a virtual environment.
"The real world is not as perfect as what gets shown in textbooks," says Hannula. "Walking around outside, students have to use their spatial thinking skills and make decisions about what kind of data to collect and how."
With campus propped in the heart of one of the greatest natural laboratories in the world, FLC geology field camps are a signature program and major draw for students and faculty alike. On May 11, 2020, FLC launched the first entirely online field camp in the country. These "virtual field days" will allow students to "walk" through 3D landscapes using a combo of Google Earth, photos from the field, drone footage, training materials from the oil and gas industry, and other data combinations.
"This is one thing we've never done as a geology community," says Hannula. "The things we develop will be adopted by other institutions, tools that will help students understand things that are truly hard to comprehend in the field when ten people are crowded around looking at the same thing. In the future, we'll combine these virtual tools with the real thing to make that time in the field even better than it was."
One of the major issues to address in virtual classes and field camps is access to the internet. Before Spring Break, Hannula handed out surveys to her students about this very thing. She discoveredthat, while most of her junior geology majors had internet access and cameras on their phones, more than 20% of the intro geology students had serious internet limitations, prompting Hannula to create resources that required as little downloading as possible.
Rather than dealing with faraway places in lectures, she posed questions related to wherever the students happened to be at that time: Are there landslides near your home? What's the nearest river to you? If there's no river, then where does your water come from?
For Hannula, the online interface has created an unexpected space for conversations that wouldn't otherwise happen. With students sending pictures of rocks they're curious about and asking questions they'd never ask in the classroom, Hannula says she's learned more about the geology of reservations in the Four Corners than in all her 20 years of teaching at FLC.
"On the one hand, geology is hard because it's in the field," says Hannula. "On the other hand, this is an opportunity to remind students that geology is everywhere, in the places they live and care about."