University of Exeter team pioneers virtual field trips in 3D

Oliver Bartlett conducting PhD research in Greenland capturing data used in the InVEnTA project. Picture (c) Dr Steven Palmer

3D gaming technology is being used by a team from the University of Exeter to take students and researchers on virtual field trips to the Arctic Circle.
The Interactive Virtual Environments for Teaching and Assessment – InVEnTA – uses the latest advances in 3D imaging to take students and researchers to environments from the sunny climes of East Devon to the Arctic Circle and beyond.
So promising is the project that it has been nominated for an international award at the Reimagine Education Conference in San Francisco at the end of November.
The team behind InVEnTA is Dr Steven Palmer, Dr Damien Mansell and Dr Anne Le Brocq, who are all senior lecturers in physical geography in the University of Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences. They are being supported by the University of Exeter Education Incubator.
Dr Palmer said: “Over the past year we’ve been looking into the practicality of using the latest 3D visualisation techniques, which will be very familiar to many computer gamers, to take students on virtual field trips almost anywhere in the world.
“Damien, Anne and I are all particularly interested in studying ice sheets and glaciers, so one of the first case studies we have been working on has been the Russell Glacier on the west of the Greenland Ice Sheet.
“We’ve used data collected by a fixed-wing drone during a 2017 research field trip to create an immersive environment to show how, from a computer anywhere in the world, lecturers can take students on a virtual field trip to the glacier.
“Instead of controlling weapons in a shoot-em-up game, students can control where they go in the virtual environment.
“It helps people visualise what is happening and understand the processes under way. This is also useful for scientific research as well as teaching.
“In one scenario, lecturers create a virtual environment which students then visit. In a second scenario, which provides a much more active learning experience, the tool is given to the student so they create the virtual environment themselves.
“This knowledge construction approach helps students develop new skills and allows them to demonstrate, through the environment they have created, what they have learnt.”
Data from a wide range of sources can be used to feed in to the software, including drones, kite-based photography and handheld cameras, as well as existing datasets familiar to geographers.
A more local case study has focused on the geography of a Devon beach and cliffs.
Dr Palmer added: “At the moment we are focusing on understanding the value of the tool in a university undergraduate teaching environment.
“The support from the Education Incubator has been invaluable. It provided initial funding for the first year which helped us get to this stage, and now its continuing support means we hope to be able to make further progress towards taking the tool into the classroom.
“We’re honoured to have been shortlisted in the ICT Tool for Learning and Teaching category at the Reimagine Education Conference – overall there were more than 1,150 projects submitted from around the world. The awards are supported by some of the biggest names in tech so it should provide a great opportunity to network and spread the word about the cutting-edge work being done here in Exeter.”
The University of Exeter Education Incubator seeks to nurture innovation and collaboration in teaching and learning. It supports academics from across the University by creating spaces in which they can explore and develop pedagogic innovations and ideas. It enables any University of Exeter academic to participate in networks of interested peers, providing access to expertise and examples of inspirational education practice.
To read more about the incubator please see