For example, an area that was once a lake, 330 million years ago, is now filled with plant and animal fossils. There are even ancient traces of rain, leaving tiny gaps that have been naturally preserved. Some of these impressions are rectangular in one direction, which can be used to estimate wind speed. A student may find these rain prints, examine them in high definition, and then write something about how they were used to understand what the Earth’s atmosphere looked like at the time.
The students engaged, and the quality of their work was comparable to what teachers had seen in previous field seasons. “Two of the projects were about to be published,” Genji says.
Usually, a human trainer is there to help, but that just wasn’t possible in these single-player game worlds. In their place, a tiny flying robot was following students around, directing them to geological curiosity. “I gave her a very rude character,” says Genji. She annoyed the students if they looked clueless, and sometimes she referred to Chris Hemsworth.
The goal was serious, but it was a platformer after all, and Genji and Sutton couldn’t resist throwing some unexpected twists. The edge of a precarious cliff in the real island of Sardinia has become, in the virtualized version, a place to throw students into the sea, as a shark chases them as they swim to a nearby island.
For the next release, Genji spent three weeks in the Scottish Highlands, driving and capturing lots of drone footage, which he used to recreate the landscapes around the village of Kinlochleven, another destination for field trips prior to the pandemic. He made waterfalls, planted 30,000 trees, and (in an act perhaps unnecessary loyalty to reality) filled the hills with midges. His son, Harry Make buildings– Bleed from said midges.
At this point, there was another important milestone in the evolution: Sutton finished a multiplayer version of the game. All students can be in the same place as an avatar, communicate with their voices, point at objects, make measurements of trends and types of rocks, and draw groups of geology on a map. “I made all the difference,” says Genji. “It suddenly became more real.”
As students crossed the area, filling out their geological maps as usual, teachers checked their progress. “I could say it was effective, because the students behaved like the students,” says Genji. Everyone had quad bikes, “so there was a certain amount of racing going on instead of mapping.” A student sent him a letter to politely ask him how to get his quad bike out of the tree. After the workday ended, students were using the Scottish digital dimension to hang out.
In the classroom came the Meteor Unit, a new addition to the curriculum. Genji was concerned about how to keep sharing those eight lectures during pre-pandemic times: The department only had five meteorite samples among its 30 students, which limited their individual exposure to practical instructions.
Fortunately, virtual field trips provided an obvious solution. Basically, we went on this eight-week space adventure, ”says Genji.
After an introductory lecture on the distinction between meteorites and regular rocks, students were given quad bikes and asked to find meteorites hidden across a vast desert. Many of the fragments came from a single meteor that exploded into the atmosphere, scattering its fragments like grains of a cosmic gun. Can students find these related pieces of wreckage and piece the puzzle together?
While carrying out their detective work, a planet with Saturn-like rings slowly rose above the horizon. Some students interested in exploration wandered to find the crater of a damaged spacecraft collision inside. When they viewed the wreckage, a student asked why there were cannon turrets. Genji replied, “Well, space is a dangerous place.”