Field studies – real or virtual?

Every evening’s TV schedules include either an ad for some kind of ‘virtual reality’ (VR) device or a ‘techie’ programme in which one appears. As well as massively multiplayer online role-playing games, commercial VR offers 3-D encounters with charging rhinoceroses, surfing, wingsuit flying and other ‘experiences’ that are either life threatening or viciously expensive. Second Life, the online virtual world (but not yet compatible with VR goggles), appeared as long ago as 2003 and at present has about a million regular users and many more have passed through its portal, eventually to tire of its cheesiness. Yet, Second Life no longer seems to be a topic of normal conversation; maybe aficionados don’t go out very often. The development software, the speed and resolution of computers, the peripheral technologies and the visual quality of immersive VR seem to be following something like Moore’s law – the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. And VR gaming is clearly very profitable with revenues likely to rise from about US$17 million in 2014 to over US$ 20 billion by 2020.

Douglas McCauley writes in Science (Insights 20 October 2017) about the potential of digital games and simulation for expanding the reach of STEM education, particularly in his own field ecology (McCauley, D.J. 2017. Digital nature: Are field trips a thing of the past? Science, v.  359, p. 298-300; doi: 10.1126/science.aao1919). His view is partly positive, as they match the thirst for armchair experiences and the growing digital expertise of the billion or more gamers and many more whose culture is dominated by electronic media, skewed strongly to the under-24s. For instance, children in the US spend on average 7 hours per day online, but only 4 to 7 minutes of unstructured outdoor play. There are obvious opportunities to familiarise and enthuse young people with the staggering richness of the natural world, which none of us will ever be able to witness first hand. At a time when the UK National Trust reports, for instance, that only a third of British children can recognise a magpie (a distinctive and common European member of the crow family) whereas 9 out of 10 easily recognise a Dalek alien cyborg, there is clearly a need. Sixty years ago David Attenborough’s early monochrome Zoo Quest series on BBC TV definitely drew me into natural science as it did millions of others, and I for one am deeply grateful for his then somewhat awkward efforts. So it would be stupid to condemn the potential of VR and more plain-vanilla gaming methods as they could do much the same and probably a great deal more. But can it really teach the field skills needed by any potential observational scientist rather than just make people more interested?

McCauley is less certain on that front, and so am I. Studies have shown that virtual field trip participants perform no better than their peers who engaged only in conventional illustrated lectures. ‘Immersive’ experiences can simulate some, but not all aspects of real terrain, ecosystems and geological features.  My own geological ventures have involved a ‘virtual’ aspect provided by remote sensing and image interpretation. Those now pretty aged technologies show ‘the big picture’ – with some zoom-in capacity – and provide insights into regional and, with Google Earth, local geological structures and relationships. By capturing imagery outside the humanly visible wavelength range they add a great deal about rock composition that would otherwise require large sample collections, petrographic interpretation of thin sections and some basic geochemistry. A stereoscopic 3-D view and the use of terrain in creating perspective oblique images also permit estimates of dip and strike of strata. But it is all a bit inhuman and alien, much the same as ‘doing’ geology on Mars without the opportunity to behave as a curious being would if actually on the surface. Any field scientist has real experience imprinted for years in much the same way as would her hunter-gatherer forbears, while it has been shown that virtual experiences may persist for a mere few weeks. My view is that often uncomfortable, total immersion in field reality, literally step-by-step and day after day fosters continual reflection during and for a long time after the experience. Much of science in general is about ‘mulling over’ observations at every level of detail; the more detail and the more repetition the deeper the insight and the more profound the breaks through.

As higher education continues along its path of commodification the more supposedly ‘immersive’ virtual experiences are likely to supplant field work, largely for cost reasons – both for students and institutions. In my former institution, to which I am still tenuously attached, a decision was taken 17 years ago to make residential field studies optional, and in 2011 to abandon them almost entirely in favour of ‘virtual’ experiences of one kind or another. The results have been dramatic: enrollment in geoscientific courses has fallen to a third of the pre-2000 level; retention has declined by up to 10% and pass rates have dropped significantly. The bottom line is that what we used to call Earth sciences has become increasingly marginalised as regards the range of courses on offer.

The production of geoscientists: a cautionary tale from the Open University

Despite global recession, worldwide job opportunities for geoscientists are increasing faster than the number of available applicants. In the US the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 21% growth in this sector in 2010-2020 (Perkins, S. 2011. Geosciences: Earth works.  Nature, v. 473, p. 243–244). That figure does not include jobs freed-up by retirement: the demographics of employed geoscientists in the petroleum and mining industries are skewed markedly to the over-40s, peaking at age 50.

The American Geological Institute’s Geoscience Workforce Program has reported that the regions that produce most geoscience graduates, the US, Europe, Russia and China, are not meeting their domestic needs let alone global requirements. The demand stems from the traditional petroleum and mineral industries that are booming, together with the renewable energy sector and growing concern about environmental hazards and impacts attending global warming.

An editorial (Rare Earth scientists) in the December 2012 issue of Nature Geoscience is headlined, ‘Not enough young people enter the geosciences. A passion for the subject should be sparked early on.’ It then comments that the decline in young people studying the geosciences at school stems from Earth science not being taken seriously, under-education of their teachers and budgetary sacrifice of geoscience to preserve the more ‘traditional’ science subjects. The leading article concludes, ‘On an increasingly vulnerable planet, governments need to teach the young people of their country an understanding of the Earth’s basic make-up and dynamics, along with inspiring a fascination for its age and beauty. How else can we expect humanity to survive the Anthropocene?’

Open University
Creative work on the Open University campus (Photo credit: ianonline)

For over 40 years the Open University has been a key UK educator in geoscience. Since 1971 a total of about 170 thousand, mainly British students have studied at home through the OU for a science-based degree. Discovering tectonics, Earth structure, geology and palaeontology through studying the Science Foundation Course must have been a thrilling experience because since 1972, when the OU began to offer a level-2 course in Geology, around 30 thousand of its science ‘beginners’ decided to find out more; an average enrolment of 760 per year. The OU’s Department of Earth Sciences added more level-2 courses so that by 2000, students could also study economic geology (The Earth’s Physical Resources – 18 500 students from 1974 to 2009, averaging 544 per year), planetary science (The Earth: Structure, Composition and Evolution- 14 100 students from 1981 to 2005, averaging 590 per year) and Earth-system science (Earth and Life –7121 students from 1997 to 2006, averaging 712 per year).

After 1981 Open University students could, and many did, aim for a geoscience-oriented degree that also took in three, more advanced, level-3 studies. These were Oceanography (12 121 students from 1989 to 2012, averaging 505 per year), stratigraphy (The Geological Record of Environmental Change – 7968 students from 1976 to 2012, averaging 295 per year) and Earth’s internal processes (Understanding the Continents – 6994 students from 1976 to 2012, averaging 259 per year).

In this way the Open University became one of the world’s largest single providers of geoscience education, if not the largest: in the whole of the United States fewer than 3000 first degrees majoring in geoscience are awarded annually. Yet from its inception the OU’s Department of Earth Sciences had never claimed to be training professional geologists: had it been, its graduates would have significantly affected the world’s employment opportunities in the discipline. In fact that claim could never have been made, for one simple reason: distance learning for part-time students would always struggle to provide the volume of hands-on practical training that is the quintessence of this pre-eminently field- and lab-based discipline. Nevertheless the OU’s range of residential schools where practical activities were intensively provided for went a good way towards filling this gap.

English: Waterfall Geologists, from the Open U...
Open University students at the now defunct Geology summer school, inspecting a fault. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, to those unfamiliar with the realities of the OU milieu it will seem odd that in 2012 the world’s largest provider of distance learning axed all residential courses right across the science spectrum, including those in practical geoscience. But to those directly involved this move was the logical final step in a series of changes since 2001. Before that, for those courses that included a residential component attendance had been compulsory, except in special circumstances. Yet after 2001 university authorities deemed that the residential schools continue only as optional components for degree study and should carry an additional registration fee. Not surprisingly, in the case of the core level-2 Geology course attendance at the re-branded residential school declined to 30% after 2001.

Two other important developments attended this change in the Earth Science degree programme. After 2001 pass rates fell abruptly. For example, in the Science Foundation Course the rate fell from an annual average of 69 to 54%, and in level-2 Geology from 65 to 55%. Because residential schools played a vital role in boosting confidence and reinforcing home studies, equally as important as transferring practical skills, this dramatic fall in performance was only too predictable.

The other post-2001 development was an across-the-board fall in new registrants for Earth Science level-2 courses, especially in those that had previously not been served by residential studies: The Earth: Structure, Composition and Evolution from a pre-2001 average of 680 per year to 470 thereafter; Earth and Life from 866 to 558; The Earth’s Physical Resources from 795 to 456. The majority of those who enrolled for these courses having previously studied the core Geology course such dramatic declines are easily explained. Those who had opted out of the residential course missed its undoubted boost to confidence and enthusiasm, and reinforcement in basic geoscientific principles. More likely to underperform in the Geology course, they would not have felt equipped to deal with other level-2 courses, and ‘voted with their feet’.

Since its launch, The Earth’s Physical Resources course had been acclaimed by geoscience teachers internationally for having made economic geology fascinating rather than a chore. In 2005-7 it had been completely refurbished and rising registrations bucked the downward trend. Yet in 2009, it was axed with little discussion. Declining enrolment for The Earth and Earth and Life prompted management to withdraw both and combine parts of their content in a single course Our Dynamic Planet: Earth and Life. Launched in 2007, by 2012 it attracted a mere 217 applicants. In 2013 it too will be withdrawn from the curriculum.

In late 2010 the OU’s Department of Earth Sciences held a celebration of its 40-year existence; yet only a year later in 2011 the department that had brought plate tectonics, advanced palaeontology, unravelling past climates, physical resources; planetary science and much besides to the widest student audience ever achieved ceased to be. It was merged into a restructured entity called the Department of Environment, Earth and Ecosystems. There seems to have been a failure of nerve and leadership that may have important consequences not only for the future of geoscience as a discipline and among the wider public but for the very knowledge necessary for our national and human survival.  The future availability of remaining geoscience courses is uncertain, with all being expected to start for the last time within the next year or two. Perhaps some major transformation to meet increased needs for general public awareness of the way our planet works is being planned: let’s hope so and that any new offerings have as much impact as the earlier courses did before the start of the 21st century. It will be a hard task, as the Open University tripled its fees for students entering the OU system from 2012 onwards.

NOTE: (added 11 February 2013) The Open University has been offered the right of reply to this item.