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Virtual Field Trips: Just Like Being There

Michael E. Ritter
Department of Geography/Geology, UW- Stevens Point


Field trips are a valuable way of connecting classroom concepts to real-world situations. However, there are times that a field excursion is logistically difficult, too costly, the location too remote or dangerous to visit. As a substitute, we take our students to these places by delivering a narrated slide show, stepping slide by slide, and site to site, describing each place as we move along our journey. We are in a sense creating a virtual field trip with our presentation. Now, computer technology can do the same thing, and greatly expand the nature and interactivity of this virtual experience.


Attributes and Use of Virtual Field Trips
Virtual field experiences, as defined here, use computer technology to guide students on a path through the landscape. A virtual field trip is an online activity in which the user views a series of images with accompanying text. A virtual field study involves active learning experiences where students use observational and analytical techniques similar to those undertaken in an actual field study. The hypermedia environment of the World Wide Web makes it an excellent vehicle to conduct virtual field trips.

Virtual field trips delivered over the World Wide Web have many attributes that make them a useful tool for learning. Hyperlinking allows a user to follow a route predetermined by the designer, or let the user to choose one of their own.

Virtual field trips can be taken at any time, in any weather, and as often as one likes. They overcome the impediment of space and time, allowing the user to examine the landscape from perspectives not otherwise possible on a real field trip. For instance, many different views of the terrain can be presented, such as ground-level pictures, satellite imagery, line drawings, air photographs, or digitized maps. Animations and fly-bys using digital elevation models can take the student to inaccessible places; and more importantly, they are a good substitute for those who are physically handicapped and cannot go on a real field trip . Virtual field trips can be linked together to provide comparisons between places. At the click of a mouse, students taking a virtual field trip through the Rockies can be sent to the Appalachian Mountains to make comparisons between these two landscapes. Hyperlinks can be created from keywords to online dictionaries or other reference materials, which students can access and explore to gain a greater depth of understanding.

Virtual field trips can take students to places that may be too dangerous or remote. The worn torn country of Bosnia is an interesting case study for physical and cultural geography, yet it is nearly impossible to take students there. The Bosnia Virtual Field Trip ( created by Jeremy Crampton and Beth Rundstrom of George Mason University leads viewers through the physical, political and cultural landscape of Bosnia – Herzegovina, and examine the significance of the physical landscape, the inter-ethnic strife of contemporary Bosnia, the Dayton peace accord, and the important players in the conflict. The authors use the virtual field study to interject lessons in basic geographic concepts like map scale. For example, students are asked to examine maps of Bosnia at different scales and describe what happens to the amount of territory shown as scale increases or decreases.

Virtual field trips can be used to support actual field trips, to substitute for a field trip, and as a vehicle for self-instruction of classroom concepts. The Boulder Creek Virtual Field Study  ( written by A. David Hill and Michael Solem of the University of Colorado - Boulder, is a series of on-line activities that complement a real, self-guided field study of Boulder Creek, located in Boulder, Colorado. The "Preview section" introduces the student to the area prior to going out to conduct the actual field study. The "Review section" asks questions based on the observations made in the field. They have incorporated a "Discussion Forum" for students to discuss relevant issues about human use of the environment as well.

Being located in Wisconsin, I cannot take eighty introductory physical geography students to the mountains to learn first hand about mountain environments. Therefore, I created a virtual field trip to the Indian Peaks section of the Colorado Front Range ( as a self-paced instructional module for the study of the altitudinal zonation of vegetation and landscapes modified by alpine glaciers. As a self-paced activity, students have more time to thoroughly examine the material than they would during a conventional lecture presentation on the subject. The field trip begins with a short introduction to the physiography, climate and ecosystems of the Front Range, and the materials needed for the "trip". The user can either navigate sequentially from the first through the last site or use an image map to jump to each site in any order they wish. Each site page is composed of an image with a brief text description of the site. "Sensory" language is used in the site page text. For instance, when the user enters the subalpine forest web page, they "notice the air getting cool and damp".

Near the middle of each site page the student is asked to perform an activity. The instruction for the activity is placed in a border-less table that has been color coded to draw the student’s attention.  Most activities have the user seek out information on subsequent pages and enter it into their field journal. These entries may be a description of the site, a sketch, or recording field data "collected" at the site. At the D1 site the user is asked "to follow the ridge until in narrows into an arete, describe its appearance and how it forms." To do so, the user clicks on the hyperlinked text that sends them to a web page describing the formation of the ridge using text, block diagrams, aerial photographs, and topographic maps. At the conclusion of the field trip, the student hands in their field notes and a summary of the data they have collected in text and graphical forms.

Virtual field trips are a useful way of bringing "the real-world" into the classroom. They can introduce new concepts, reinforce actual field experiences, or be useful substitute when you can’t get into the field. The Virtual Geography Department Project’s ( Virtual Field Trips and Studies Working Group is creating a variety of on-line learning modules. You can to link to a number of virtual field trips and studies from their home page ( Though you can't "stop and smell the roses" on a virtual field trip, you won't get poison ivy on one either!