Giant’s Stairs Virtual Field Trip

The Giant’s Stairs project is the first ever published study created by the Emerging Technologies Lab and the largest lab project to date, and was a collaborative effort that is representative of lab ambitions to work closely with other burgeoning XR labs in the Maine area in the future. As his independent study in Spring 2021, Matthew Donnelly ’22 created a VR geology lab field trip and, with Bowdoin Professor Dr. Jaclyn Baughman and Colby College Professor Dr. Stacy Doore, conducted a pilot, IRB-certified human subject research study assessing the viability this environment to teach a geological field lab. Supplemental literature review was performed by Adaobi Nebuwa at Colby College. Such environments also serve as accessible tools to practice spatial reasoning skills that are difficult to simulate outside of a field lab.

Matt created two versions of the virtual experience, one for use on a standard computer screen with a keyboard, and one for use in a room-positioning virtual reality headset.

The environment is a 3D modeled virtual replica of a real location called the Giant’s Stairs, a natural rock outcrop in Midcoast Maine with unique geological qualities. The 3D model of the terrain was created by Thais Carrillo ’23.

The experience begins with a series of menus and maps to contextualize the environment. The participant then enters the field trip portion of the study. Participants enter a training phase, during which they learn how to navigate and interact with the environment. They are then prompted to explore the field site and answer questions using the model, augmented information such as photographs imbedded in the model, and their own knowledge. Students finish the experience by answering questions asking them to exercise their spatial reasoning skills and memory of the field environment.

While this is a pilot study and protocol can be enhanced in the future, we have collected interesting preliminary results. Of the twenty five participants, all were students in the same introductory geology class, and 11 students participated in the immersive VR condition while 14 participated in the desktop condition.

There was a decrease in geological question accuracy in this study compared to previous in-person field labs, however we suspect that this was also impacted by the individual nature of this study and the lack of hints and collaboration available. We observed an increase in exploration and independent reasoning, as well as spatial reasoning, compared to in-person field labs. This suggests that this type of activity may be very effective at stimulating student engagement with material at a deeper level than conventional group field labs. Between the immersive and desktop conditions we found functional equivalency in accuracy, suggesting the potential for highly accessible virtual field trips without need for immersive VR equipment.

This proof of concept pilot provides an exciting foundation for future work with virtual field trips and other immersive educational and research experiences.