For Geoscientists, the laboratory is everywhere. Fundamental information about the formation of the rocks beneath our feet, the evolution of the landscape and evidence for ancient human activities are collected by observation in the field. Recent technological advances in digital imagery and the development of affordable and easy-to-use remote airborne vehicles (DRONES) has also opened a new chapter in field studies for geoscientists.
The School of Geosciences at the University of Aberdeen is a world-leader in the adoption and application of digital technology, combining the latest virtual tools and resources with our unrivalled field study locations on our doorstep here in Scotland and overseas.
Three-dimensional images of Burghead in Moray have been created based on archaeological excavations by the University of Aberdeen. Funded by Historic Environment Scotland as part of a wider video project to enable the public to learn more about Scotland’s Pictish past, the images showcase the enormous defensive ramparts, which were once thought to be eight metres thick and six metres high, as well as dwellings within the fort.
V3 Geo has been developed by Aberdeen geoscientists and is a bespoke public repository and viewer for 3D virtual geoscience models, with a focus on virtual geological outcrops. V3Geo provides a selection of outcrops from localities around the world. The long-term goal is to have high-quality representations of all the world’s significant geological sites.
As well as being a key research tool to enable observation of difficult-to-reach locations, it is also a very powerful educational tool for geoscientists at all levels of study. With the limitations placed on ‘real’ fieldwork by the current Covid-19 restrictions, V3Geo is already proving to be an invaluable educational tool. Current undergraduate students are utilizing virtual outcrops from around the UK to learn key field skills that they will be able to apply to real filed study later in their careers.
We have been using a number of different tools and resources in the MSc Geographical Information Sytems degree programme over the last 25 years for online mapping/webGIS, virtual fieldtrips, and geovisualisation.
For example, students create an online mapping/webGIS portal for the Knock Farm Project designed to demonstrate the role of geospatial technologies for smart farm management. This project involves the use of satellite data for land-use/land-cover mapping; creation of a geodatabase; development of a web-mapping portal; and the use of UAV monitoring and mapping, and 3D models. Students also write a report, and present their work as a pPTX presentation, and produce an A0 poster.
Others work involves gathering stereo RGB aerial photography and videography to study coastal areas, processing the aerial imagery (softcopy photogrammetry, and Structure from Motion (SfM)), to create orthomosaics, DTMs and DSMs (Digital Terrain Model/Surface) and finally generating fly-throughs using the topography or with aerial imagery draped over the DTM.
3D scanning and photogrammetry allows us to make virtual copies of the wonderful objects that inspire our learning in archaeology, like this walrus mask from Nunalleq - a precontact Yup'ik site in Western Alaska. Housed thousands of miles away at the Nunalleq Archaeology and Culture Center in Quinhagak, 3D scans like this have been created to allow our students to view and interacted with museum-quality pieces from our excavations. Models capture the colour and texture of objects, as well as their overall shape, allowing us to study and interpret their meaning.
The Aberdeen Centre for Electron Microscopy, Analysis and Characterisation (ACEMAC) provides a range of high tech facilities for industry, researchers and students, including a high-resolution Field Emission Scanning Electron Microscope (FESEM). This electron microscope uses electrons instead of light to scan everything from rocks and metal to fungi and archaeological artefacts, magnifying them up to a million times. Live scans can be transmitted remotely to lecture theatres or students’ own devices, helping to bring undergraduate and postgraduate students into active research labs.
The UK Virtual Microscope (UKVM) is another example of the use of new technology to enhance students’ laboratory skills. We implemented the use of the UK Virtual Microscope to enhance the teaching of optical mineralogy and petrology at Levels 1 and 2 UG Geology.
The UKVM consists of more than 100 samples from the United Kingdom, many of them from the School of Geosciences own collection, which has been digitised as an open educational resource.
The UKVM opens up the study of additional materials that would not previously have been covered due to time constraints. The UKVM has greatly improved our students’ mineral identification skills and students have found the online assessments very user friendly.