Photograph of two people on a beach.

Virtual Fieldwork

Why Does this Place Look the Way it Does?

Fieldwork, the study of a site through firsthand observation, is fundamental to how we have come to understand our environment and the Earth and its processes. Our work in the field—whether virtual or actual—is driven by the overarching question, “Why does this place look the way it does?” That’s a question that can be asked and investigated productively across a wide range of scales. Supporting questions can structure its investigation.

While computer-based simulations of field sites have not managed to replicate the multi-sensory immersive experience of being in the field, Virtual Fieldwork Experiences (VFEs) can offer opportunities to explore sites that are not practical to travel to in person. They can further serve to enhance actual fieldwork by allowing quick observation across a wide range of scales. Authoring VFEs also offers the opportunity to teach others about your local environment or other field sites that you have visited.

This section of [email protected] describes the facets of PRI's Virtual Fieldwork Program. On this page, below, we introduce the concept of "virtual fieldwork experiences."  You can also use the buttons immediately below to go straight to our catalog of VFEs (both those that we have developed and developed by others) or our pages on theory, classroom use, and tips for construction of VFEs.


VFE Catalog

How to make VFEs: Tools and Tips

The Role of VFEs in Science Education

Using VFEs in the Classroom

Why Virtual Fieldwork?

Virtual fieldwork is not intended to replace actual fieldwork, but to prepare for, catalyze and extend it. Creating a series of VFEs from around the country will result in a rich curriculum resource, but that is not the only reason to create them. The act of VFE creation, for example, is valuable professional development that creates useful evidence of having done the PD. Through the creation and continued use of virtual fieldwork, a teacher can become a true expert on his or her local environment—perhaps the preeminent expert.

Students can use field sites, whether real or virtual, to study how all the major topics in their Earth or environmental science curriculum are manifest in the “real world.” In an ideal situation, the classroom is immediately adjacent to a safe, accessible field site and there is flexibility within the school schedule that allows for in-depth study of the site in ways that cross disciplinary boundaries. Unfortunately, it’s not always practical to visit an actual field site with 30 students repeatedly throughout the year or semester. Through virtual fieldwork, students can come to see how the rock type, flora and fauna outside their classroom tell part of the story of that place.

In order to create VFEs, authors must closely study their field sites with an eye toward doing fieldwork with students. VFEs are a stepping-stone to bringing students into the field, even if the field is “only” the schoolyard. VFEs can be used to prepare students for the field and/or process fieldwork after visiting the actual site. In the ideal situation, students will participate in the creation and extension of VFEs, but we recognize that getting to this point may take years.


Big Ideas in Virtual Earth Science Fieldwork

The ultimate goal of instruction is to build understanding of the Earth system and the ways in which science is used to build that understanding. We bring focus through the use of a small set of bigger ideas and overarching questions. Virtual fieldwork is a context for revisiting the same Earth system case study repeated from different perspectives, and addressing each of the Earth System Science “Big Ideas.”

Overarching Questions:

  • How do we know what we know?
  • How does what we know inform our decision making?

Earth System Science Bigger Ideas:

  • The Earth is a system of systems
  • The flow of energy drives the cycling of matter.
  • Life, including human life, influences and is influenced by the environment.
  • Physical and chemical principles are unchanging and drive both gradual and rapid changes in the Earth system.
  • To understand (deep) time and the scale of space, models and maps are necessary.

Virtual Fieldwork should be designed to provide the opportunity to explore, describe and build understanding of these questions and ideas, which are further developed in the [email protected] Digital Encyclopedia chapter "Earth System Science: The Big Ideas" and presented shared in the Prezi presentation below.

"Bigger Ideas in Earth System Science" Prezi presentation by Dr. Don Haas (Prezi).

Fieldwork vs. Field Trips

We draw attention to the distinction between fieldwork and field trips. We strive to engage learners in figuring things out, while field trips—whether actual or virtual—are too often characterized by trip leaders pointing things out. Building in the opportunity for genuine discovery is challenging but promises to yield longer-term engagement and understanding. Of course, VFEs also allow some kind of “fieldwork” experience when actual fieldwork is difficult or impossible to carry out. The reasons that actual fieldwork is difficult are fairly obvious:

  • Fieldwork is logistically challenging. It’s hard to fit into a typical class period, or even a double lab period. To go off site requires permission slips, bussing and figuring out how to deal with behavior outside the normal classroom setting.
  • It’s even more challenging during the time of COVID-19: Most field trips, both K-12 and undergraduate level trips, have been canceled, leaving only online options.
  • It costs money. Field trip budgets have been slashed, and weren’t very common at the secondary level before budget cuts.
  • Many teachers have only limited experience doing field science themselves. High school Earth science has more teachers teaching out of field than any other science discipline, and fieldwork is not a component of all Earth science teacher certification programs. It is intimidating to lead fieldwork if you haven’t been through it yourself.
  • Fieldwork poses safety and behavior concerns different from those in the classroom. Falling off a cliff has different consequences than falling off a chair. These issues shouldn’t preclude fieldwork, but they undeniably complicate it

Credits and Funding

Most of the contents of this page are derived from various sources developed over the past two decades by Don Haas and Robert Ross and their colleagues at the Paleontological Research Institution.

Logo of the National Science Foundation.This work has been and is supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, including the following:

  • Improving Earth Science Education through Teacher Development in Regional Geology; NSF TPC-0455833, 2004–2006; $144,000. PIs Ross and Duggan-Haas.

  • Enhanced Earth system teaching through ReaL Earth Inquiry; NSF DRL-0733303, 2007–2015; $1,763,588. PIs Ross and Duggan-Haas.

Funding has also been received for the Broader Impacts portions of NSF grants for the following awards:

  • Development of a Critical Zone Observatory National Office; NSF EAR-1360760,  2014–2020.

  • Digitization TCN: Collaborative: Documenting Fossil Marine Invertebrate Communities of the Eastern Pacific: Faunal Responses to Environmental Change over the last 66 million years; NSF DBI-1502500, DBI-1503065, DBI-1503545, DBI-1503611 (PRI), DBI-1503613, DBI-1503628 and DBI-1503678 (UCMP Berkeley); 2015–2020.

  • Collaborative Research: Mass Extinction Ecological Response and Recovery in the Cretaceous/Paleogene Gulf Coastal Plain; NSF EAR-1925586, 2019–2022.

Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

We are also grateful for long and ongoing collaborative work on VFEs with our colleagues, particularly Lisa White (Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley) and Frank Granshaw (Portland State University), and for the feedback and insights of dozens of teachers and project advisors.

Image in banner at top of page: Fieldwork at Oregon's Beverly Beach State Park, February 2020. The associated VFE is currently in development for the EPICC Project. Photograph by Don Haas for the PRI [email protected] project (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license).