Photograph of two people on a beach.

Using VFEs

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.

This page is a gateway to PRI's Virtual Fieldwork Program. 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.

Below we provide information about VFEs and the big questions that they can be used to address in the classroom. Use the buttons immediately below to explore our catalog of VFEs (including those that we have developed, as well as those developed by others) and tools and suggestions for creating your own VFE.


VFE Catalog

How to make VFEs: Tools and Tips

The Role of VFEs in Science Education

Using VFEs to Foster Rich Discussion

We found the Ambitious Science Teaching Project's Discourse Primer for Science Teachers four high-level goals for talk resonate with our goals for the kind of conversations that VFEs should foster. These goals are shown below.


    • Eliciting students’ initial scientific hypotheses in order to plan for further instruction. The goal of this discourse is to draw out students’ understandings of a phenomenon (e.g. a bicycle rusting in the backyard) that is related to an important scientific idea (in this case chemical change or conservation of mass). After the lesson we analyze students’ ways of talking about it in order to adapt upcoming learning experiences.
    • Making sense of data/information. The goal here is to help students recognize patterns in data, critique the quality of data, and to propose why these patterns exist. What, for example, is going on at the unobservable level that explains our observations?
    • Connecting activities with big scientific ideas. The goal of this practice is to combine data-collection activities with readings and conversation in order to advance students’ understanding of a broader natural phenomenon. This conversation is different from the previous one, in that students are not trying to explain the outcome of an activity, but to relate the activity to a bigger science idea or puzzle that the unit is framed around.
    • Pressing students for evidence-based explanations. This discourse is designed to happen near the end of a unit, but elements of this conversation can also happen any time the teacher is trying to get students to talk about evidence. The goal of this discourse is to assist students in using multiple forms of evidence, gathered during a unit, to construct comprehensive explanations for a phenomenon that has been the focus of the unit.

From: A Discourse Primer for Science Teachers (p. 7). Available here.


Consider these goals as you explore and investigate your field sites—both the virtual ones represented here, and any site local to your home or school. While they are labeled here as goals for talk, they reflect goals for the kind of thinking teachers, students, and other learners should engage in as they deepen their understandings of scientific ideas.

As you explore our VFEs, you may wish for more explanations of some of the underlying science. There are a number of reasons for that, but paramount among them is, "Explanation kills wonder," as Paul Anderson notes in his discussions of the NGSS. Unsurprisingly, that's difficult and perhaps inappropriate to explain, but it does support the fostering of rich discussion. This does not mean that explanation is never appropriate, but as teachers, we often explain too much, or give explanation before learners are ready to take them in. If we let learners wonder longer than we typically do, when they seek out explanations, the understandings are likely to be more durable.

If Your Curriculum Materials are Always (or Usually) Perfectly Polished, You're Misrepresenting Science

You are. Science, like life and the world more broadly, is rarely something that points to one simple clear explanation, at least for things that really matter in the world. Science is messy business. Too often, school curriculum leads learners to a clear and straightforward answer. That isn't unreasonable for simple matters, but for things that are really interesting, for things that really matter, it's a problem.

Science is often confusing, and if students aren't confused at least some of the time, they probably aren't learning the science in a deep and meaningful way. The explorations presented here probably tell too much for students to walk away with deep understandings, but building understandings of the specific sites shown here is not the only purpose of the content on these webpages.

As you explore these virtual field sites, consider how the nature of these sites compares to your local environment. As you work through these resources designed to help you understand the environment in these places, consider how you can make a Virtual Fieldwork Experience of a place near where you live that others could use to learn about your environment. Then make a VFE to share what you have learned—or, make one to both share what you have learned and to process what you have learned. Why does your place look the way it does?

Preview the VFE and Consider What You Will Focus Upon

Given that most or all of the units within a course play out in nearly every terrestrial environment, fieldwork, whether real or virtual, can be a part of instruction in any unit. We suggest that you give attention to fieldwork in multiple units throughout your course, and draw comparisons between your local environment and the environments you visit virtually. Use fieldwork at the beginning of a course to establish the purpose of your investigations; interweave fieldwork throughout the course to highlight topics within each unit; and use fieldwork as a capstone to tie the course content together. Fieldwork may be used for any or all of these purposes, and it may make sense to choose one initial focus, especially if you have not led students in fieldwork previously. Remember that field scientists may visit the sites they research hundreds of times over their careers and continue to deepen their understandings with each visit.

Most VFEs that we’ve developed are customizable to teacher and student needs. Google Earth or Prezi files can be edited to allow focus on a particular feature in the landscape, or students may be directed to focus on specific topic. Generally, they also allow topics and questions to be investigated at different depths.

Questions to Guide Field Inquiry

"Why does this place look the way it does?" is the driving question for our work and we've developed series of questions and prompts that support the driving question. One series focuses upon the rock at a site and the stories that can be read in the rock. Another set of questions focuses on the underlying geoscience, and a third addresses environmental science and ecology. All of them are framed so that they can be productively investigated at any site.



Several additional questions are relevant to all of those listed above:

  • How do you know? What evidence is there?
  • What does it tell you about past environments?
  • What does it imply about the future?

Productive Field Inquiry Raises New Questions

Virtual fieldwork offers the opportunity to explore an area without leaving the classroom, and it allows multiple “visits” to a site. “Why does this place look the way it does?” is a bottomless question, meaning that it can be productively investigated for a very, very long time. Field scientists, be they professionals or fifth graders, will never fully answer this driving question absolutely or at every scale. Many of the supporting questions also have a bottomless quality.

These big questions can be used to drive discussion and investigation, and they can be used in graded assignments. The teacher can define the level of detail students are expected to use in graded work. Many of these questions can serve as catalysts for research papers or projects, but they can also be meaningfully answered in a concise paragraph.

Most VFEs are built around sets of imagery, some of which is interactive. Consider what you see as a dataset—or at least as a set of data, as "dataset" often refers to specific kinds of computer files. A photograph can contain a tremendous amount of data and also help to place other data into context, especially if the photograph is of very high resolution.


An interactive panorama at California's Southern Sierra Critical Zone Observatory. Note the tree that has a metal band around it and hoses running up its trunk. It is one of the most heavily instrumented trees in the world. Instrumentation in and around this "CZ Tree" measure chemical and physical characteristics of the tree and its roots, and the surrounding air and soil. It is an important part of the Critical Zone Observatory program in which interdisciplinary teams of scientists work to understand the interplay of rock, water, soil, air, and life. Street View Panorama by Don Haas.


Consider and discuss what kinds of data can be included in a photograph taken in the field, and discuss how photographs can help provide context for other kinds of data. What can be interpreted about the nature of a place by interpreting photographs of that place? What kinds of information are easy to capture with a photograph? What kinds of data are more challenging to capture this way? As you look at different VFEs, ask yourself, "What do I wish the authors had taken pictures of?" And, "How could the photographs better capture aspects of the site, to help us understand why the place looks the way it does?" Use these questions to help you think about what to do when you create a VFE of your own.

Instruments can extend and sharpen our senses. Your sense of sight, of course, is not the only sense used in interpreting a field site. See The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the United States' chapter, "Real & Virtual Fieldwork" for more on using instruments to extend the senses.

Consider the Most Important Takeaways

From field investigation, you can learn a lot about the story of a place—how a landscape came to be the way that it is. This is, of course, deepened by other kinds of research, both in the lab and in the library. We do think learning the story of a place is important, but for most learners, the details of how plate tectonics and climate shaped a particular environment are not the most important understandings, or the understandings that we hope will prove most durable.

By durable understandings, we mean big ideas that the learner will remember and understand for years after instruction. We have carefully crafted a set of Earth Science Bigger Ideas and Overarching Questions and we hope students and teachers will revisit them and consider their connections to their investigations. As described above, the Overarching Questions, "How do we know what we know?" and, "How does what we know inform our decision making?" are as important as the Bigger Ideas themselves.

Engaging in fieldwork (and the research in the lab and library to support that fieldwork) helps us to understand how scientific stories are unearthed. To understand how scientific stories are unearthed is at least as important as understanding those scientific stories themselves.

Whether the fieldwork is actual or virtual, it can (and we think should) be used to highlight two key ideas:

  • There are questions that can be productively asked and investigated about any site.
  • Investigating a landscape is an exercise in Earth systems science—no landscape is the product of a single process.

Further, virtual fieldwork is a user-friendly way of documenting, analyzing and sharing lessons learned from doing actual fieldwork.

These overarching ideas are likely more important than specific lessons about a particular site. Connected ideas include that understanding the connections between and among different Earth processes are as important as understanding the processes themselves, that scientists work develop durable understandings of the answers to these questions, and that students can engage in these questions as professionals and in service to meeting their obligations as informed citizens.

Using Virtual Fieldwork as a Catalyst for Actual Fieldwork

The VFEs we have created help tell the stories of the places they represent. While they can, to some degree, stand in the place of actual fieldwork, that is not their primary intention. When you visit a Virtual Fieldwork environment, consider how the place you are studying compares with your local environment and other environments you have studied. How are the environments similar and how do they differ? Consider too how you can make a VFE of your local environment that you can share with others to teach them about where" you live (or the field sites you visit). Ideally, engaging in Virtual Fieldwork leads to doing actual fieldwork.

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 one 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 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 making an interpretive guide for a county forest.
  • Students are exploring lakes, dams, streams, outcrops, quarries, waterfalls, and more