The hidden earth-Interactive, computer-based modules for geoscience learning

Stephen Reynolds, Michael D. Piburn, Debra E. Leedy, Carla M. McAuliffe, James P. Birk, Julia K. Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Geology is among the most visual of the sciences, and spatial reasoning takes place at various scales and in various contexts. Among the spatial skills required in introductory college geology courses are spatial rotation (rotating objects in one's mind) and spatial visualization (transforming an object in one's mind). Geologic curricula commonly require students to visualize Earth in many ways, such as envisioning landscapes from topographic maps, the interaction of layers and topography, and the progressive development of geologic features over time. To facilitate learning in introductory college geology laboratories, we created two geologic modules-Visualizing Topography and Interactive 3D Geologic Blocks. The modules were developed as learning cycles, where students explore first, are then introduced to terminology and concepts they have observed, and finally apply their knowledge to different, but related problems. Both modules were built around interactive QuickTime Virtual Reality movies that contain landforms and geologic objects that students can manipulate on the computer screen. The topography module pairs topographic maps with their three-dimensional (3D) representations on the same screen, which encourages students to visualize two-dimensional maps as threedimensional landscapes and to match corresponding features on the map and 3D perspective. The geologic blocks module permits activities that are not possible with normal paper-based curricula, such as interactively rotating, slicing into, eroding, and faulting the blocks. Students can also make the blocks partially transparent to reveal the internal geometry of layers, folds, faults, intrusions, and unconformities. Both modules encourage active participation by having students describe, draw, and predict, and both modules conclude with applications that require the students to extend and apply key concepts to novel situations. Assessment of the modules using control and experimental groups shows that the modules improved student performance on a geospatial test, that general spatial ability can be improved via instruction, and that differences in performance between the genders can be eliminated by a semester-long laboratory. "To go out into the field with a geologist is to witness a type of alchemy, as stones are made to speak. Geologists imaginatively reclaim worlds from the stone they're trapped within." -Frodeman (1996, p. 417).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)157-170
Number of pages14
JournalSpecial Paper of the Geological Society of America
Issue number413
StatePublished - 2006


  • Geologic structure
  • Geoscience education
  • Topographic map
  • Visualization

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology


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