• Search
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram

Training in the virtual realm

Jacqueline Houghton explains how a collision between the worlds of gaming and geoscience has heightened the learning experiences of students

Words by Jacqueline Houghton
1 September 2022

A 3D image of ‘The Ledge’ outcrop on Rhoscolyn, Anglesey. Virtual landscapes allow students to hone their field skills before putting them to test in the real world (Image credit and copyright: University of Leeds 2017)

Fieldwork is an essential component of a geoscientist’s training. However, for those who are new to the subject, attempting to bridge the gap between a two-dimensional map and the three-dimensional world of geological structures and processes, can feel alien and challenging. To build student confidence and aid field-based training, geoscientists are turning to the virtual realm.

Jacqueline Houghton, an Associate Professor of Geoscience Education at the University of Leeds UK, leads the Virtual Landscapes Project – a UK collaboration between the School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds, and the Leeds Art University, to build virtual environments in which to learn and practice basic geological mapping skills. 

Fundamental field skills

Virtual landscapes are created by a small team of geologists, none of whom are game-design specialists, using the Unity game engine – software that was originally launched to create video games, but is now also used to create simulations in a wide variety of industries, including film, engineering, and the armed forces. The screen-based virtual reality landscapes are populated by rock outcrops, and each outcrop has an associated notebook entry that describes the rock, gives data readings and often a labelled field sketch.

This in-class tool, which appears like a video game, allows students to develop their 3D visualisation skills and hone their basic field data-gathering techniques from the comfort of a desk, before putting them to the test in the more unpredictable, mixed weather and terrain environments encountered during real-life field mapping. 

The landscapes are completely free-form and open ended. The sounds of gently breaking waves, trickling streams, baa-ing sheep, and gulls and planes flying overhead contribute to a more immersive experience. Students, tasked with producing a geological map and/or cross section, stratigraphic column and field report, can roam at will, making their own decisions without being guided by the software. Jacqueline explains that the virtual environments mimic the decision-making and time-management skills required when doing fieldwork because, for example, the speed of movement is limited to a fast walk and rivers can only be crossed at bridges. During the exercise, students learn skills, such as how to use co-ordinate systems and plot outcrops on maps, as well as more general concepts, such as how to use data collected
from one outcrop to inform where to go next and how to read the landscape and vegetation to infer the underlying geology.

Jacqueline explains that both staff and students report finding it easier to focus on teaching and learning field skills in a classroom first, with the upshot that students are more confident and efficient when they put their new-learnt skills to the test in real environments.

“Interestingly, in the virtual landscape students make many of the same mistakes they make when learning in the field, most notably, ‘outcrop capture’. They hurry round the landscape, marking the outcrops on the field slip and noting the rock type, but not considering the other information in the notebooks and the landscape or using it to inform their routes. They then find it difficult to construct cross sections or accurately map boundaries. 

“Staff feedback shows the training has saved time in the field as the basic skills are already embedded, students are more confident in their abilities and there has been an improvement in the quality of field slips. The use of the 3D models has resulted in improvements in student’s reading of topographic maps and understanding how
geological boundaries interact with the topography.”

Fieldwork is expensive and the use of digital technologies could be seen as a cheap alternative. However, there are aspects of the field experience they cannot emulate 


Much of Jacqueline’s current work focuses on inclusive geoscience teaching, with a particular emphasis on fieldwork, and in advocating for equality, diversity and inclusion across the geosciences. Many people assume that digital technology will make activities such as fieldwork more accessible and inclusive. However, Jacqueline warns against
using these terms interchangeably, without much thought as to what they actually mean.

“The fact that a digital facsimile may make an area or outcrop accessible for study doesn’t mean using it provides an inclusive experience. For a student, being unable to participate in field classes with their peers results not just in a loss of learning opportunities, but also the sense of missing out on the group bonding experience with its myriad social interactions. This in turn can reinforce a sense of isolation with its corresponding impact on sense of belonging.”

An example notebook from Lighthouse Bay (Image credit and copyright: University of Leeds 2017)

Jacqueline is clear that virtual fieldwork should not replace real-world fieldwork. Rather we must continue our efforts to make the field more accessible to all. “The danger comes when digital technology is seen as a quick and easy alternative to fieldwork for those with disabilities and so prevents more appropriate provisions being put in place that would otherwise allow active field participation.

“It is important to recognise that whilst not everyone may be able to visit every outcrop, everyone should have the opportunity to be actively involved in the field experience. For example, the use of a four-wheel drive vehicle to enhance access to outcrops; and, technology itself can be part of the solution with the use of drones or go-pro cameras. 

“Hybrid fieldwork, where a student attends the field class but completes alternative exercises for some of the more inaccessible localities is another possibility. These are a valuable tool when they allow a student to collect data from sources (such as satellite images or thin sections) unavailable to their peers, allowing them to exchange data and make unique contributions to group discussions.”

It is not always in a student’s best interest to participate in a field class, and Jacqueline notes that an existing disability, such as poor mental health or an unstable medical condition, as well as unexpected events, such as illness or bereavement, may prevent participation. In such cases, digital environments can be a good alternative experience.

Ultimately, Jacqueline recommends listening to the student and making the decision jointly, suggesting that clear guidance and open discussions can effectively reduce anxiety and allow a student to make an informed decision about whether they are able to attend. 

A 3D image of folded cleavage on Rhoscolyn, Anglesey (Image credit and copyright: University of Leeds 2017)

No substitute

Given the large number of digital resources and technologies now available to enhance and support the field experience, some educators may be tempted to cut back on the field components of their courses. But fieldwork offers an experience that is impossible to mimic. 

“Fieldwork is expensive and the use of digital technologies could be seen as a cheap alternative. However, there are aspects of the field experience they cannot emulate. Physically being in an area and looking around at the subtle variations of the natural world; feeling the textures of a rock outcrop; having to look where you are going as you walk over rough ground. Fieldwork provides an all-encompassing experience that cannot be replicated within a digital environment.”

Of course, digital technologies do provide a useful substitute for fieldwork when no other alternative is available.

“This was most clearly demonstrated during the pandemic, but even before then, the virtual landscapes were used in places where running field classes was difficult for reasons of safety, the lack of suitable (or any) rock outcrops in the region or in education settings where the cost of fieldwork was prohibitive.”

Virtual Landscapes: Geoscience Education in Digital Environments

The Virtual Landscapes Project currently offers three mapping landscapes: Three River Hills; Lighthouse Bay (and Bahía del Faro, the Spanish version of Lighthouse Bay, created by request during the pandemic); and Rhoscolyn, Anglesey. 

A topographic map and two interactive geological maps are also available. 

These resources are freely available to all at www.see.leeds.ac.uk/virtual-landscapes/

Barriers to uptake

One obstacle to more widespread uptake of resources such as virtual landscapes is the difficulty for instructors of learning the software.

“Games engine software is very specialised and time intensive to learn and use. Finding, understanding and incorporating new digital resources into classroom activities is a serious investment of time. Working out how scrambling over beautifully detailed three-dimensional images or using interactive models of geological maps can be incorporated into a structured lesson that addresses already determined learning outcomes is a challenge.”

Technology isn’t always entirely reliable either. “Websites can go down or disappear and software stops working. You have to have confidence that a resource will be usable for a significant period of time.”

Despite these pitfalls, Jacqueline is a strong advocate of digital technologies as engaging and accessible tools for geoscience outreach because they allow demonstration of geoscientific techniques in an appealing and hands-on manner. 

“It is important that we take advantage of the many digital resources and technologies now available to enhance and support the field experience, and it’s even more important that we use all methods possible, including technology, to open up these field experiences to as many people as possible.” 

With thanks to the other members of the Virtual Landscape Project, Clare Gordon, Ben Craven, Geoffrey Lloyd and Daniel Morgan, all at the University of Leeds, UK, and Annabeth Robinson, formerly at Leeds Arts University, now at the University of Salford, UK. 

Jacqueline Houghton
Dr Jacqueline Houghton is an Associate Professor of Geoscience Education at the University of Leeds, UK, and is co-chair and co-founder of Diversity in Geoscience, UK, a charitable organisation that promotes equitable access in the geosciences.


Interview by Amy Whitchurch, Executive Editor, Geoscientist Magazine, and Sade Agard, Chair of Area Code Foundation and member of the Geoscientist Contributors Team


Houghton, J. Training in the virtual realm. Geoscientist 32 (3), 34-36, 2022; https://doi.org/10.1144/geosci2022-027

Related articles