Back in the Classroom: Virtual Field Experiences (VFEs)

Following your trip to a field site, perhaps the most critical step after returning to your lab or classroom is to examine all of your photographs, illustrations, specimens, and notes associated with each. Sometimes even the most diligent geologist forgets to record notes that, in hindsight, are critical. It is therefore recommended that one makes sure that his or her notes are legible and complete. Recopy your notes. Such an activity will not only ensure legibility for the future, but it will help indicate any gaps in your note taking. If gaps exist, then it is easiest to fill them in when your memory of the site is fresh.

Once your materials from the site visit are in order, it is time to develop an activity that will allow your students to experience the site much like you did—but in the classroom. VFEs allow you to compile this information in a way that is easy to share with others who wish to learn about the site. Ideally, VFEs provide opportunities for open-ended exploration, just as actual fieldwork does. Scientists in the field are not limited to a single possible way to operate, nor do they have a guide explaining what they see at every turn. In the field, one might pick up a rock and take a closer look, or pull out a magnifying glass and look at a cliff face. Exploration drives inquiry in the field, and inquiry and exploration are key goals of VFEs.

The concept of VFEs can take on multiple forms. For example, kits containing maps, printed photographs, and specimens (with notes on the map indicating where the specimens were collected or where the photographs were taken) can be produced. Or, your digital photographs can be embedded within a PowerPoint or Prezi presentation, a website, or a Google Earth tour with placemarks containing photos, video, or other data in the exact locations where the specimens were collected. Maps can also be overlain. Historic maps can be included, and Google Earth has historical imagery included for much of the world. Many VFEs incorporate more than one technological platform.

Keep in mind that these electronic presentations may take on a very linear, directed feel. In that respect, be careful that your VFE does not turn into a Virtual Field Trip. Virtual Field Trips have become increasingly common at many levels of education, but these experiences are typically guided tours rather than opportunities for inquiry. An online search will yield many examples of these tours, as will a search of the Digital Library of Earth System Education (DLESE). Such resources clearly have value, but they are passive experiences for students. VFEs, in contrast, should stress the importance of inquiry;; learning for understanding involves students figuring things out. The act of making new, or extending existing, VFEs may be the simplest way to bring inquiry to the use of VFEs.

In considering VFEs as a recurring practice, initial experiences are perhaps more guided than the later experiences;; allow a gradual transfer of responsibility from teacher to student. But VFEs ideally offer the same opportunities for exploration as those provided at an actual field site, with occasional moments of discovery that lead to new questions about the site. By asking such questions and then seeking answers, students are doing science. And it is perfectly reasonable to virtually visit a site several times for further data collection, or even to study different concepts at the same site. Scientists, of course, do exactly the same thing.

Prezi and PowerPoint VFE Templates

This section discusses templates intended to simplify VFE production in addition to providing general information on VFE development and use. There are templates in both Prezi and PowerPoint formats, each with a version of the graphic organizer shown in Figure 10.1 as its centerpiece. Questions in the graphic organizers and in the rest of the templates are written generically, so they may be applied to any site. The templates serve as starting tools that are useful for creating an “entry level” VFE. They are available at http:// The template includes graphic organizers for both Earth and environmental science, with the environmental science organizer embedded within the geoscience organizer.

How are teachers using virtual fieldwork?

VFEs might be used as a single, in-class exercise, or they can be explored across an entire year. We hope that teachers who use and develop VFEs will eventually use them across the entire curriculum, but it makes sense to start smaller. There is no single correct approach to using VFEs in the classroom. Here are some examples of ways teachers are using virtual fieldwork:

  • Students in a rural community are using Google Earth to create Powers of Ten tours centered on their homes (based on the Eames’ classic film). This helps students to internalize the abstraction that is central to making maps and to build deeper understandings of scale.
  • Students are making geologic maps of the local bedrock.
  • Students are creating an interpretive guide for a county forest.
  • Students are exploring lakes, dams, streams, outcrops, quarries, waterfalls, and more.

For more VFEs, see our growing database at

What do I need to consider as I begin to build my VFE?

Considerations fall into four categories:

  • Logistical: What do I have the attitude, time, resources, and skills to do? (Attitude is listed first as it is the most important factor.)
  • Pedagogical: How do I bring the scientific content together with technologies in a way that best builds enduring understandings of bigger ideas and overarching questions, as well as of the smaller scale ideas and questions I deem important?
  • Technological: What hardware and software do I need to assemble the materials for the VFE and to make it accessible to my students? This may include traditional scientific tools, like a rock hammer or a compass, as well as the computer technologies discussed in this chapter and on our website.
  • Content: What scientific knowledge, ideas, processes, and practices do I want my students to understand and be able to do at the end of the experience?

Of course, these categories overlap and interplay substantially—teachers of Earth science use Google Earth in different ways than other Google Earth users do.

The framework for understanding how to effectively blend technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge is known by its acronym TPACK.

Most of the remainder of this chapter is a set of checklists to help you address these different considerations when outlining your VFE design. Take it with you into the field as you collect pictures and other kinds of data for your VFE;; use it to identify issues you think are most important for the development of your VFE. Most of the items in the checklists are there to start you thinking about how to address a particular issue. Content is listed last for the sake of readability, as the checklists for the content section are longer than they are for the other categories.

Table 11.3: A checklist of cross category issues. Many of the questions in the checklist relate to more than one of the categories identified above. Because of this overlap, only the cross-category issues and content sections are of significant length.

Table 11.3: A checklist of cross category issues. Many of the questions in the checklist relate to more than one of the categories identified above. Because of this overlap, only the cross-category issues and content sections are of significant length.


We hope that VFE development is used to expand teachers’ skills and knowledge. Performing fieldwork for the first time can be overwhelming, but remember that science is a process, and not even professional scientists capture all that they need in one visit. With practice, and the proper attitude, you will become more and more comfortable when visiting the field.


While most pedagogical questions also address other categories as noted above, there are issues that deserve explicit attention here.

  • Does the data you are collecting go toward answering why this place looks the way it does? Or is there a good reason to introduce distracting information?
  • If the site is especially striking or unusual, have you considered how to get yourself and your students beyond the “novelty space” of the location? Crudely summarized, novelty space is the idea that you can’t figure out what’s going on at a field site if you’re either awed by its beauty or freaked out by its perceived dangers. This is one of several reasons for choosing a site that is already familiar to the students.


Most technological issues are also logistical; these are addressed in the table above.


Why does this place look the way it does? The driving question of our work can serve as an entry into any major topic in Earth or environmental science curricula. It also brings relevance to the science since we want to start with sites near the school that are already somewhat familiar to the students. We want students to look at the familiar with new eyes, and to become skilled at reading their local landscape. Ultimately, we want the skills built by reading the local landscape (being able to tell the story of why a place looks the way it does) to be transferable to any landscape.

What scientific content do you want your students to better understand through their work in the VFE? How does this fit into the larger goals of the course? Can you draw, and help your students to draw, connections to bigger ideas and overarching questions? What topics in Earth science can be addressed by doing fieldwork?

Understandings will be made much deeper in schools where teachers in more than one subject or grade level engage their students in studying the local environment.

Below are questions taken from the geoscience and environmental science graphic organizers. Most teachers will likely use one sheet or the other, but not both. Your VFE likely won’t address all of the questions (on either sheet), but you should be able to strategically select what you minimally wish to address.