INCREASING ACCESSIBILITY AND SPATIAL REASONING IN THE EARTH SCIENCES USING VIRTUAL REALITY: A VIRTUAL COASTAL MAINE FIELD EXPERIENCE
Using Unity software, traditionally a game development platform, we created a virtual field experience of coastal Maine that can be deployed to mobile, desktop, and virtual reality platforms. The virtual geologic field site addresses three major objectives it 1) enhances spatial reasoning skills by allowing students to explore 3-D environments and assess spatial relationships, 2) makes field experiences physically accessible for students with mobility constraints, and 3) allows students to connect across spatial scales from the regional scale, to the outcrop scale, to the microscopic scale by incorporating regional images and maps and photomicrographs within the spatial context of a virtual outcrop.
There are many skill sets suited to the earth sciences and many individuals suited to be earth scientists. However, earth science departments often suffer from a lack of diversity, including physical diversity, due to physical barriers of entry into the subject, such as physically exclusive field experiences. Virtual field sites are a valuable tool to promote physical inclusion and allow students to development disciplinary skills like spatial reasoning. In addition, they make field-like experiences more accessible to all students, and may be particularly valuable for online and/or large classes where field visits are not possible.