Most students will enter their geology class and find different types of rocks on their desks.
But for students of Missouri State University’s Dr. Matthew McKay, they’ll also find an Oculus virtual reality headset.
“Real geology is out in the wild and hands-on,” McKay said. “If we can’t easily take students into the field, we will bring the field to the students.”
Filling the gap
Much of a geologist’s work is done in the field.
But field opportunities are not always accessible for students, especially early on in their studies.
“You can’t take kids to places like national parks,” said McKay, associate professor of geology. “There are obstacles like funding, permits and large class sizes.”
So, McKay utilizes virtual reality.
Commonly known as VR, virtual reality uses computer-generated or digital imagery to stimulate a realistic environment.
Virtual reality is typically experienced using a headset with controllers. VR has been rising in popularity as a medium for entertainment such as playing video games, but it is not used often in the classroom.
McKay’s unique approach makes geology education both immersive and fun.
How it’s done
McKay wanted to teach his students about the geological activity around Mount St. Helens.
So, he climbed Mount St. Helens.
“I grabbed my gear and made the climb,” McKay said. “Once I reached the top, I found a good spot, planted my high-resolution panoramic, 3D camera on the summit and let it take in the view.”
To generate images that are VR headset compatible, the gear takes multiple photos of the surrounding area. Then, they are processed on a computer to create a 360-degree image.
When viewing these photos in the headsets, students can feel as if they are at Mount St. Helens.
McKay wants to bring more places to his students. He already has plans to visit other places and capture footage.
“We’ve already filmed in Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and all over the Appalachian Mountains,” McKay said. “This fall, we’ll be filming in Colorado and in some caves around Springfield. Then New England in the spring.”
He will also capture footage in California over spring break. The goal is to incorporate lessons with footage from all 50 states.
Currently, VR is used in a portion of McKay’s GLG110 (Principles of Geology) course. McKay hopes to increase the number of labs that can use VR in the lessons by getting more headsets.
If you want to see what climbing Mt. St. Helens is like and experience some of the geology, McKay also filmed the climb with several GoPro cameras: