The Role of VFEs in Science Education


Virtual fieldwork experiences echo real fieldwork and, in ideal circumstances, real and virtual are blended in ways similar to the manner in which field researchers read about, visit, and document a site -- often in several iterations, each trip building on the last. But even researchers may be limited to one trip or to published field documentation, and a variety of VFE approaches can provide fruitful learning opportunities. Student construction and use of virtual fieldwork experiences have the potential to align with numerous research-based best practices in education and with the Next Generation Science Standards. This page explores ways in which VFEs connect to broad science education goals.


The Role of VFEs in Science Education

Using Virtual Fieldwork Experiences in the Classroom

In many field trip settings, whether virtual field trips, or at actual field sites, teachers or field trip leaders point things out. That can be interesting, educational, and fun, but the learning is likely to be more durable if the learner figures things out. Ideally, in working together, teachers will act as collaborators with students, and will work to figure things out together.

We also hope that sharing strategies for teaching and learning with the learners, as we are promoting here, will help learners to be more metacognitive. Metacognitive learners are learners who actively learn how they learn, and work to manage and improve their learning processes.

A fundamental goal of learning in the geosciences is to be able to answer the question, “Why does this place look the way it does?” where “this place” is wherever you happened to be, or whatever location you happen to be studying. The question leads to a sort of “who done it?”—a mystery, or set of interlocking mysteries, to be solved. Unearthing these mysteries is rarely a simple task. A landscape is always the result of the interplay of many different processes, often over very long periods of time. There is never, or almost never, one single process that explains why a particular landscape is the way that it is.

Nearly every unit in an Earth or environmental science course, and most of the units in a biology course, play out in some meaningful way in most environments, including the one outside your classroom door. The table below lists units in typical Earth science and biology curricula. Look through the list and consider how each unit influences the landscape where you live and the landscape or landscapes you will explore through virtual fieldwork.

Units in a Typical Earth Science Course Units in a Typical Biology Course
Introduction: Size, shape, and composition of Earth Introduction: Unity and diversity among living things
Mapping Maintenance in living things
Rocks and minerals Human physiology
Weathering, erosion, deposition, and landforms Reproduction and development
Earthquakes and plate tectonics Transmission of traits from generation to generation
Earth history & paleontology Evolution (note: evolution is both a crosscutting theme and a unit)
Meteorology and climate Ecology

It’s all there—each and every one of these curriculum units is happening outside your classroom door, outside the door of your home, and wherever your field site happens to be. Fieldwork, whether real or virtual, can be used to deepen understandings for any and all of these topics. (Note: Human physiology is a bit different than the rest of the units as it focuses on a single species.)

While it is all there, there is also ambiguity. Doing fieldwork, whether virtual or actual, has substantial important differences from doing traditional schoolwork. We think that's a good thing. Reading the lay of the land, answering the question of why a place looks the way it does is complex work that both develops and requires the understandings of content from multiple disciplines and—at least as importantly—understanding the meaning of the connections amongst those disciplinary ideas. In other words, doing fieldwork is more like doing life than it is like doing schoolwork.


Much of what we do in school simplifies the seemingly complex. That is important to do much of the time, but it is also important to complexify the seemingly simple—to dig into the complex nature of how our world works. Fieldwork, whether real or virtual, provides excellent opportunities for studying the interplay of different Earth systems and processes. As you explore your field site, consider the connections amongst the processes of life, rock formation, and the nature of weather and climate. Then consider connections to other areas of science, and to disciplines beyond science.

Learning Objectives

There are a large range of possible learning objectives that can be satisfied through VFEs. Ultimately, we hope learners satisfy more sophisticated objectives that are higher on Bloom's Taxonomy. While we will share some objectives that might be addressed or satisfied in working with content of this site, we also recognize (and welcome the idea) that educators and learners will choose or develop their own objectives for their use of the site. In choosing to do that, they will be more metacognitive than those who simply follow whatever suggestions we happen to make.

High level objectives that we hope users aspire to include:

  1. Interpret the environment represented within the VFE you are investigating, including descriptions of why the landscape looks the way it does, and how it has changed over time.
  2. Create a VFE representing your local environment or a field site you have visited and present it to interested others.

These objectives do lack specificity in terms of the level of detail for explanations and the scale of the VFE to be created. Educators might determine this before working with their students, or educators and students might work together to negotiate the scale of the explanations and models. Applying analogical reasoning to the interpretation of environments is an important skill used in field science and maybe a component of an objective.

The "interested others" mentioned in the second objective could be community members, or other classes. Inexpensive video conferencing allows the interested others to be a great distance away. We suggest connecting classrooms across the country, and can help facilitate that.

The sections on The Next Generation Science Standards below also addresses objectives.

Virtual Fieldwork and Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is a multi-state effort to create new education standards that are "rich in content and practice, arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education." The NGSS presents science as "three-dimensional," where the three dimensions are "Scientific and Engineering Practices," "Crosscutting Concepts," and, "Disciplinary Core Ideas." These are shown in the table below.

This webpage assumes basic familiarity with NGSS. "The Teacher-Friendly Guides, Virtual Fieldwork, and the NGSS's Three-Dimensional Science," the appendix of The Teacher-Friendly Guide to the Earth Science of the United States, gives a general overview of how fieldwork, whether real or virtual, can be used in NGSS-informed instruction. It also can serve as an introduction to the NGSS. For teacher-written descriptions of the kinds of conceptual shifts that the NGSS requires, see the Shifts page of the Practices Resources in Science and Math (PRISM) website. The site also includes video cases of NGSS-based teaching.

Virtual and actual fieldwork are well suited to teaching three-dimensional science in ways that resonates with NGSS. Here's an extended excerpt from the appendix mentioned above.

Deep understandings of why your local environment looks the way it does requires understanding the local environment from multiple disciplinary perspectives, and understanding the connections amongst these different disciplinary ideas. That is, to understand your local environment, a systems perspective is needed. Scientifically accurate meaningful understanding can and does come out of single lessons, single units, and single courses, but these understandings become richer, deeper, and more durable if they are connected across courses. The NGSS vision includes recognition that building a deep understanding of big ideas is both very important and a process that takes years of coordinated effort. Fortunately, the many processes that shape the local environment are part and parcel of existing curricula, and especially for Earth science, biology, and environmental science courses, nearly every unit has central aspects that play out on a human scale just outside the school door. A coordinated approach to the study of the local environment across units within a single course and across grade levels and courses can be a fairly subtle change in each teacher’s daily routines, but it has the potential for big returns in terms of the depth of student understanding. This deeper understanding pertains not only to the local environment and the way course topics are represented within it, but also to systems more generally, to the nature and importance of scale, and to much, much more.

Transforming K-12 Science Education

The above excerpt, and the document it draws from are focused broadly. They do not focus on particular Performance Expectations, Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts or Science and Engineering Practices but on the big picture vision of the NGSS, and on a systems- and research-based approach to effective science teaching. Considering how a particular teaching approach satisfies specific standards is important, but it is fairly easy to lose sight of larger goals and begin to treat those individual aspects of the Standards as a checklist. The larger goals include transforming K-12 science education so that high school graduates are prepared for the duties of citizenship, further education, and the workforce.

Under the heading, "All Scientific and Engineering Practices and all Crosscutting Concepts in all courses," Appendix K of NGSS notes, “The goal is not to teach the PEs, but rather to prepare students to be able to perform them by the end of the grade band course sequence.” To help keep focus on these larger goals, we suggest hanging posters of the NGSS's Crosscutting Concepts, Science and Engineering Practices and Disciplinary Core Ideas on your classroom walls and referring to them regularly. The University of Illinois' Project Neuron makes pdfs of such posters available here.

Incorporate the Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices into Assignments Regularly

One simple way to do that is to make questions about them a part of standard lab reports. This five-question lab summary offers an example of how to do that with a few straightforward questions. It includes a simple rubric, and is in Microsoft Word format so that it can be easily edited to suit teacher needs.

Of course, the Performance Expectations were developed for a reason. They, along with Evidence Statements (and other resources), give guidance on what NGSS-aligned instruction looks like. For example, consider Evidence Statement MS-ESS2-2, Earth Systems: "Construct an explanation based on evidence for how geoscience processes have changed Earth's surface at varying time and spatial scales" (Performance Expectations for MS-ESS2 are here).

The kind of science described in this Evidence Statement can be well addressed by engaging in actual fieldwork exploring and describing the environment either outside your classroom door or through virtual fieldwork. And, this holds true for many, if not most, of the Performance Expectations within the NGSS.

If looking at the level of Performance Expectation seems daunting, relax. Go back and look at the big picture ideas expressed within the Crosscutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices and consider how these are applied to the study of the environment. All of the guidance provided here is intended to support teaching that satisfies the NGSS, even if, or maybe especially if it is not focused on specific Performance Expectations.

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