New Hampshire colleges will likely continue with some aspects of virtual learning when students return to campuses this fall. It's a particular challenge for disciplines like earth science, which rely on field trips and physical lab work.
One class at Dartmouth College has tried a novel solution to that issue this semester. The popular earth science survey class is built around hands-on expeditions near the Dartmouth campus.
So this spring, the class's two instructors built a virtual classroom – recording 3D video and collecting high-definition images of Hanover's geology – for students to explore.
One video shows earth science lecturer Ed Meyer pointing out geological features on a trail near campus.
“I’m just going to walk along here a little bit more so you get a good sense of what this is like,” he says on the video, turning the camera slowly as his young daughter trails behind him.
The professors also mailed students rock kits to study at home. But Meyer said the close-up “gigapan” images and 3D videos and maps of Upper Valley geology have helped students maintain the class’s local connection, even in remote learning.
“Your understanding can build out from these small observations into kind of a big picture understanding of the geologic history of a region,” he said.
Assistant professor Sarah Slotznick said that link is important to getting students engaged in earth science, which is one of the goals of the intro-level class.
She and Meyer said the 3D classroom may not be a good permanent substitute for in-person learning – but it has proven to be a valuable supplement.
“The concept of these virtual resources for folks who can’t get out in the field or can’t complete a hike … is something that we’re really excited about,” Slotznick said. “And then for students who go out on the field trip and are just overwhelmed – which I think happens – being able to look back on certain observations could be really useful.”
In fact, she said her field has been working on these tools for years to make science in outdoor spaces more accessible for people with disabilities or other concerns.
This worked out for junior Liam Kirkpatrick, a Dartmouth engineering and earth science major who was recovering from an injury while taking the geology class from home in California this semester.
"I would have been nervous to take this class this winter, with the state I was in,” he said.
Still, he said, it's sometimes hard not to be able to physically touch and examine, say, a rock specimen featured on-screen. And he said he missed the in-person camaraderie and teamwork that he sees as key to good science – in and out of the classroom.
Classmate Natalie Dameron, a rising senior studying English and film who went home to Missouri after campus closed, agreed.
“It’s pretty different being able to look for your professor in the hallway – ‘they went that way, you can go catch them,’ ” she said. “There’s no Zoom hallway.”
Dameron doesn’t want to be a geologist, but she said being a good writer means learning about lots of different things – especially pressing issues like climate change.
The geology class covered the basics of that science, including recent government reports, and Dameron said she got a lot out of it regardless of the virtual setting.
“It’s just helped me … have more concrete evidence to use when thinking about it, when talking to policymakers, when talking to our local representatives,” she said. “I’ve always advocated for that, but now I feel like I have a very good understanding of what to say.”
Still, students and professors say it might be a while before they can tell how well this material, delivered remotely, will stick or influence undeclared students’ career plans.
Regardless, Dameron says she’s already looking forward to exploring the field trip sites in person when she gets back to New Hampshire this fall.