First Advisor

Michael L. Cummings

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Environmental Sciences and Resources: Geology






Virtual reality in education -- United States, Geology -- Study and teaching (Elementary) -- United States, Geology -- Study and teaching (Secondary) -- United States, Geology teachers -- In-service training -- United States



Physical Description

1 online resource (x, 213 p.) : col. ill.


Virtual reality (VR) is increasingly used to acquaint geoscience novices with some of the observation, data gathering, and problem solving done in actual field situations by geoscientists. VR environments in a variety of forms are used to prepare students for doing geologic fieldwork, as well as to provide proxies for such experience when venturing into the field is not possible. However, despite increased use of VR for these purposes, there is little research on how students learn using these environments, how using them impacts student field experience, or what constitutes effective design in light of emerging theories of geocognition. To address these questions, I investigated the design and use of a virtual reality environment in a professional development program for middle school Earth science teachers called Teachers on the Leading Edge (TOTLE). This environment, called a virtual field environment, or VFE, was based largely on the field sites visited by the participants during summer workshops. It was designed as a tool to prepare the participants for workshop field activities and as a vehicle for taking elements of that experience back to their students. I assessed how effectively the VFE accomplished these goals using a quasi-experimental, mixed method study that involved a series of teaching experiments, interviews, participant surveys, and focus groups. The principle conclusions reached in this study are as follows: 1. In a field trip orientation experiment involving 35 middle school teachers, 90.6% of the participants stated a preference for VFE enhanced orientation over an alternative orientation that used photographs and static maps to complete a practice field activity. When asked about how the VFE prepared them for their field experience, the participants ranked it as most helpful for visualize the location and geography of the field sites. They ranked it lower for helping them visualize structural and geomorphic patterns, and ranked it as least helpful in developing conceptual links between the geology at individual field sites and regional geologic structure and processes. 2. According to workshop follow-up surveys, 23% of the first year participants and 40% of the second year participants used the VFE with their own classes. While factors cited for not using the VFE provided some information relevant to the larger question of technology use in classroom, individual reports of how teachers used the VFE in their classes provided limited information about student interaction with the virtual environment. 3. Interviews with 85 community college students (novices), geologists (experts), and middle school Earth science instructors (teachers) revealed no significant difference in the features of interest selected from a virtual field site. Though experts tended to ask slightly more complicated and higher order questions than the other two groups, there was no statistically significant difference in the questions asked about these features in regards to topical characteristics, cognitive outcome, or cognitive type. In addition to some insights into cognitive differences between these groups, the interviews also provided information about visual selection, perception, and processing which are valuable to VFE scene design.


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Portland State University. Dept. of Geology

Persistent Identifier