Virtual helicopters fly through time and space

June 26, 1998

Field trips, once a staple of geography teaching, are expensive and sometimes dangerous. Is the advent of computer simulation making them redundant? Alison Utley (top) and David Unwin look at the end of an era

Steadily, the view ahead is scanned for those rocky hills called "tors" and their locations plotted on a base map. A transect downslope is taken making notes on the changing vegetation and collecting soil samples for analysis.

Surveying at Haytor in the Dartmoor National Park can be miserable in the wind and rain but today we are lucky with good visibility and sunshine.

This is a typical example of undergraduate fieldwork, except that it is taking place in the computer laboratory using multimedia and virtual reality. It is part of a virtual field course, which sceptics claim is a contradiction in terms.

The summary Teaching Quality Assessment for geography calls fieldwork "an important dimension to the curriculum".

It goes on to talk about the "sense of community" that residential fieldwork provides but the published reports on individual departments are surprisingly silent about it. A few are criticised for its absence, or for failing to match it to their stated aims, but that is all.

In part, this results from the obvious difficulty in "inspecting" what sometimes takes place at Easter in exotic locations, but it also seems cultural.

Fieldwork is part of the woodwork, it "works". So what is the point of a VFC? This is the question that a team, based at Birkbeck, Leicester and Oxford Brookes is asking.

If you go to the worldwide web, there are many virtual, richly illustrated field notes about specific areas. But this project aims to recreate the teaching traditionally executed in the field in a virtual computer world. The teacher not only "hard wires" the content but expects active, student-driven work.

The team's aim is to develop a tool kit to allow as much freedom as possible. The example we started with is a case in point.

Instead of providing images of the view from a predetermined series of places, in a full VFC the student can synthesise them - at any point and in any direction - from an underlying digital geography held in a geographical information system.

Lots of useful representations that simply could never be "seen" in the real world become possible in a virtual one.

Students can show the view as before, but superimpose a map of the geology and so visualise the association of rock type and landform. They can also have a look at the view with the soil type draped over it, or with an old map to see how it has changed.

Things that would take time and effort in the real world are sometimes easier. Students might, for example, visit a site and "drill down" to determine and record the soil type and properties, the land slope, or whatever.

Provided they have the subsurface data and a reasonable geological model, even drilling a virtual borehole is possible. Finally, a virtual world enables students to "helicopter" from place to place to visit sites in an order other than that dictated by the patterns of roads and the ability to access them by coach or minibus.

Students can travel instantly to similar sites anywhere on the planet and then return to compare what they have seen with a local field example. If required, the helicopter can also be a time machine allowing visits to past and future geographies.

The main drawbacks are geographical data collection and current ordnance survey pricing and distribution policy, which means that the cost of the data for VFCs in Britain may well be prohibitive.

Last Easter the students tested some of the components with real field courses in Devon and north Norfolk. One student's comment was that the view out to sea over Scolt Head Island from the hill above Brancaster was "just like on the computer".

David Unwin, professor of geography, Birkbeck College. The Virtual Field Course project is funded by (UK) Joint Information Systems Committee. Website: http:///

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