By Mark Quigley, Associate Professor of Earthquake Science, School of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and its associated coronavirus disease (COVID-19) emerged in late 2019 and accelerated into a global pandemic by March 2020. COVID-19 has caused great loss globally and continues to compromise many aspects of our personal and professional lives.
In the geoscience area, one activity that has been strongly impacted is undergraduate geological field trips. Preparation of health and safety plans and travel logistics are more complicated and time-consuming. For trip leaders, each decision is accompanied by increased uncertainty: field or virtual? Local, inter-state, or international? What are the financial and pedagogical consequences of trip cancellations or alterations? How many contingency plans are needed? Is social distancing practicable? Risk-reward considerations frequently enter into our deliberations.
Many of us consider learning geoscience in the field an essential part of any undergraduate geoscience pedagogical experience. We know that the bonding teamwork of field trips provides many benefits to student growth and wellness. The old adage ‘the best geologist is the one who has seen the most rocks’ still persists in some circles. Many employers of geoscience graduates value field experience in evaluating prospective candidates.
However, we also know that virtual field trips can be suitable alternatives. They can enhance the inclusivity of geosciences, by enabling those with physical disadvantages, carer responsibilities, financial challenges, and other considerations to equitably participate. Virtual field trips can be successful from perspectives of student experience surveys (Fig.1) and economic cost-savings (Fig. 2). The latter aspect may be particularly important to consider at these times of crisis in the tertiary education sector, which have adversely impacted many geoscience programs internationally.
This article presents some aspects of GEOL30009: Advanced Field Geology: a third-year, 12-day, southern hemisphere winter session (July) elective subject offered within the Bachelor of Science: Geology Major in the School of Earth Sciences at The University of Melbourne in Australia. GEOL 30009 has recently operated in field (2018, 2019, 2021) and virtual (2020) modes and thus is well suited for a comparative analysis. A deliberate emphasis of this article is on fieldtrip decision-making under conditions of risk and uncertainty.
Decision making: Field teaching in 2021
In field mode, GEOL 30009 is based at Oratunga Station in the central Flinders Ranges of South Australia. Third year geoscience students spend 12 days fully immersed in a ~100 km2 study area with diverse Neoproterozoic to Cambrian geology and a long history of Indigenous cultural activity. Navigational and geological mapping and structural-stratigraphic field skills are punctuated with intermittent trips to other sites of particular geological interest (e.g., Brachina Gorge). The subject rates highly in student experience surveys (Fig. 1).
To reduce long travel times and associated road risks, and maximize field time, students typically fly independently from Melbourne to Adelaide (~1 hr flight) and are taken directly from the Adelaide airport to Oratunga (~ 6 hr drive). A few hours of field work are even squeezed in upon arrival. However, in 2021, we made the decision to undertake a two-day, 14-hour drive from the University of Melbourne to Oratunga Station in two hire vans (overnighting en route) and to return via the same mode. We assessed that the potential risk of COVID-19 exposure transiting through airports and flight cancellations outweighed risks associated with the long road trips. Students wore masks at all times they exited the vans during travel and the frequency and duration of stops were minimized.
Pre-trip communications were critical; we set up a WhatsApp group in addition to university-hosted platforms to ensure students could communicate frequently through diverse channels. A hard deadline for decision-making on the trip was defined. If the South Australia border remained closed to residents of Metropolitan Melbourne as of 11 am 2 July 2021 (two days prior to the planned departure date of 4 July) the field trip to South Australia was to be cancelled and replaced with a mixed mode virtual + field trip based in Melbourne. We did not consider having multiple field trip alternatives in Victoria or other states due to the enhanced complications of managing and cancelling multiple accommodation bookings and field trip logistics. On 2 July (and as we anticipated, for the next few days) visitors from Victoria were allowed to enter South Australia. At this time, NSW and ACT were highly restricted due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Had the trip departed two weeks earlier or later, we would not have been able to enter South Australia. Had we selected alternative trip locations in NSW, as per some prior trips for this subject, we would not have been able to run the field subject. Fortuitously, the stars aligned.
Pre-trip preparation paperwork was done collaboratively by trip leaders and Health & Safety coordinators. Students were required to get entry permits to South Australia (outbound leg) and back into Victoria upon return. All students and staff were also required to get COVID-19 tests within 24 hours of entry into South Australia. We deliberately chose a low-traffic area to cross the border and a remote, low-traffic hospital to get COVID-19 tests to minimize wait times and community contact. The trip leader (MQ) was fully vaccinated and had a COVID-19 test three days prior to the trip departure. Given the tight travel, accommodation and working quarters it was clear that any pragmatic attempts to social distance within our cohort were unlikely to feasibly reduce COVID-19 risks. We accepted the risk that if a trip participant had COVID-19 it would inevitably spread throughout the cohort, against the minimal risk that any individual on the trip might actually have COVID-19, given the absence of COVID-19 cases in Melbourne at the time of departure. We delayed our planned visit to the local pub and our day of Indigenous cultural awareness (Figure 3) to approximately one week into the trip, to ensure no COVID-19 symptoms arose in the cohort and to maximize the probability that we would receive COVID-19 test results prior to these events (which we did). After weeks of planning and 3000 km of driving, a few fist pumps and collective sighs of relief may have occurred as the trip leader safely returned the students back to the university upon trip cessation.
Ultimately, the successful operation of the trip hinged on careful, collaborative, and adaptive planning, persistence and optimism amongst staff and students that the trip could prevail, and lots of luck. Prior to our return home, we received news that restrictive conditions associated with Victoria’s current COVID-19 outbreak would commence at 11:59 pm on 15 July. We returned to Melbourne on 16 July. The students completed their final assessment activities under Melbourne’s 5th COVID-19-related lockdown.
Decision making: Virtual teaching in 2020
Just a year prior, the conditions were different. In June 2020, low but ascending rates of new COVID-19 cases in Melbourne (the onset of Melbourne’s ‘second wave’) complicated planning for GEOL 30009. Initially, we (the GEOL 30009 teachers) undertook a major risk assessment analysis and sought university permission to run GEOL 300009 in field course mode. University permission was granted on 29 June 2020. However, increasing COVID-19 infections in metropolitan Melbourne resulted in a South Australian government announcement on 30 June 2020 that the Victoria-South Australia border would not open on 20 July 2020, as initially intended. We applied to the South Australia government on 30 June 2020 for special consideration to travel but this application was declined on 2 July 2020. Rising COVID-19 cases made it increasingly likely that intra-state travel and accommodations options would also be compromised. We therefore made the decision to convert GEOL 30009 to a 12-day, on-line (virtual) course with the possibility of a local fieldwork option. The course had to be created and launched in just over two working weeks. This created significant time and resource pressures. The Victorian state government announced stricter (i.e., ‘Stage 3’) restrictions on 8 July 2020 that limited non-essential travel for Melbourne residents; travel within metropolitan Melbourne for study and work was permitted under these restrictions. GEOL30009 commenced on 20 July and finished at 4pm on 31 July. On 2 August, the Victorian government announced further (‘Stage 4’) restrictions to commence on 5 August that would have limited any of the field activities required to produce and undertake parts of the subject.
We rapidly designed GEOL 30009 as a virtual field geology course with four modules. We aimed to ensure the subject offered a diverse virtual field experience involving multiple forms of content and methods of analysis. We also decided to try to use some existing content developed by others and to develop some of our own content, with a focus of the latter on developing content proximal to Melbourne and in other areas with which the teachers had significant prior experience. We also decided to order the content in such a manner that allowed the subjects that required minimal preparation time to be run first, while we developed the content for the latter modules during course operation. Finally, we decided to try to ensure that the virtual subject replicated the field-based subject as much as possible, in terms of pedagogical skills and evaluation.
The structure of the subject was defined by two self-guided virtual tours using existing open-access materials supplemented by newly created assessment tasks (Module 1: Grand Canyon – 3 days, Module 2: Earthquake geology of South Island of New Zealand – 1 day), one newly developed, instructor-guided mapping module (Module 3: Geological mapping of Castle Hill Basin in New Zealand southern Alps – 5 days), and one newly-developed, self-guided geological mapping module with optional field excursion (Module 4: Geology of Melbourne: map-based geological reconnaissance of inner-north suburbs of Melbourne – 3 days).
Module 1 used the freely available Arizona State University Virtual Field Trip to the Grand Canyon as its main teaching platform. Other utilized technologies included the interactive Grand Canyon geology map: and Google EarthTM. Module 2 used an existing virtual field trip in the South Island of New Zealand, designed by academics at the University of Canterbury focused on understanding the environmental impacts of the 2010-2011 Canterbury Earthquake Sequence. Module 3 was newly developed from existing materials. The module content can be found at https://www.thinglink.com/card/1341588563573080066. It was developed over about a week using the Thinglink platform by which numbered and annotated tags can be placed on images (in this case a combination of maps and photographs). Module 4 was mixed mode (virtual and field) experience. Students had the first day to prepare for fieldwork, one day of fieldwork, and the final day to summarize their findings and present them in written form. The video content for Module 4 (18 separate videos of 1-4 minute length) was filmed in the field on 17 July, edited in a collaboration between MQ and a professional multi-media company up until 28 July, and released to the students for commencement of Module 4 on 29 July. On the first day of the trip, students uploaded geo-rectified geological maps of Melbourne into the AvenzaTM application on their mobile phones, read several recommended research articles, watched and made notes on the Youtube videos, and constructed their own field discovery plans. The field day (Day 2) was student-led and autonomous; students were instructed to visit all sites in an order they decided, via their preferred methods of transports and in their own groups, and to watch video content whilst at the outcrops. Students were instructed to write site investigation reports (geological and geomorphic setting and context, key observations, recommendations for future work), take photographs, draw in revised contacts on Google Earth imagery and / or on the Geology map base-layer (or both), discuss the natural vs. anthropogenic materials and influences on hazards at each site, and discuss how engineering projects might need to consider their results in future work. A sample field site investigation report structure was provided prior to the trip. The field trip was stated as an ‘optional’ activity to the students, allowing for students who did not want to undertake fieldwork amongst within the COVID-19 context (or for other reasons) to opt out. All enrolled students ultimately chose to undertake this trip, albeit with various operational approaches relating to personal choices on the time allocations and order in which the stops were visited, methods of transport, and personal health. Students made field notes during the field trip, stayed in regular contact with their teachers via WhatsAppTM, and briefly met with MQ at one of the stops. On Day 3, students wrote a research report summarizing their observations and how existing geological maps of Melbourne could be refined to include these observations. Students also constructed topographic and geological cross-sections as relevant to each site.
Observations and recommendations
Many geology students (and their instructors) love being in the field. There are many field experiences that cannot be replicated in the virtual environment. However, in these COVID-19 times, substantive risks accompany the planning and operation of geoscience field trips. Some of these can be mitigated by offering virtual field trips. Students may highly value their experience with virtual field trips (Figure 1), express interest in taking more virtual field trips in geoscience programs (Q’s. 11 & 13, Fig. 1) and even prefer them to field-based trips (Q 12, Fig. 1). Virtual field trips may be more inclusive to diverse students and can also cost substantially less to run; they may negate the need for demonstrators, omit travel and accommodation costs, and reduce staff time, amongst other savings (Fig. 2). Many universities around Australia and some in the USA have sought to reduce course offerings and staffing due to COVID-19 related financial pressures; this is particularly the case for many geoscience programs. As our discipline endeavours to survive the challenges of an increasingly complex world, virtual field trips have great potential. Field trip planning in the COVID-19 world is advantaged by considering the risks and rewards of field and virtual alternatives in an adaptive decision-making framework, utilizing collaborations with health & safety experts in trip planning, seeking pragmatic solutions (including use of existing material) to meet the typically expedient needs for developing virtual content, maintaining a positive growth mindset for students when field trips need to be adapted or replaced with virtual alternatives, and advocating for operational and pedagogic decision-making autonomy for geoscience field trip leaders (rather than strict adherence to general university protocols and advice); ultimately we are the experts in operational and pastoral care in this space and should thus carry most of the privilege and responsibility.
Mark Quigley is an earth science teaching and research academic at The University of Melbourne, a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, recipient of a New Zealand Prime Minister’s Science Prize and Geological Society of America’s Public Service Award, and author of more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers and reports.