Earth Science Fieldwork: "Why Does This Place Look the Way it Does?"


Geology was built upon observations of the natural world. These observations are the clues that scientists use to reconstruct the history of the Earth. Shelly fossils along the Himilayas tell of ancient sea floors that have been uplifted into mountains. Ripple marks since turned to stone tell of ancient shorelines. And scratches along the bedrock in Central Park tell of massive glaciers that--some 20,000 years ago--created a skyline much different than the steel and glass of New York today. That massive glaciers once advanced as far south as New York is not a conclusion derived from mathematical modeling in a lab, but is instead evidenced by not only those scratches, but a host of observed glacial deposits that litter not only New York, but much of the Northeast and Midwest.

The story of a place is written in its landscape, rocks and fossils; fieldwork investigations help scientists — and students and teachers — tell that story.

Introducing students to the practice of geologic field work can be a tremendous experience. Exploring local geology through inquiry-based approaches emphasizes critical thinking. And by conducting such investigations, students have taken a tremendous leap: they are not merely learning about science; they are doing science! But getting students into the field can be difficult. An alternative is for the educator to visit the field on their own time, returning to the classroom with a series of images and specimens that permit a Virtual Field Experience (VFE). Virtual fieldwork offers the experience of exploring an area without leaving the classroom, and it allows multiple "visits" to a site. VFEs can also enhance and extend the experience when actual fieldwork is possible. The Earth is a system, after all, and any one site--virtual or real--can display a host of natural phenomena, from simple erosion and deposition to the principles of superposition and faunal succession to the formation of ripple marks or mud cracks. Ideally, virtual fieldwork in the classroom captures the active experience of a geologist examining an area for the first time: It provides opportunities to actively explore, discover, ask questions, and make observations to answer those questions, ultimately allowing students to develop educated responses to, "Why does this place look the way it does?"