Practical Technology Use in the Geoscience Classroom

By Carla Eichler, Texas Tech University

The Outcrop, September 2019

1. Introduction

Geoscience education at all levels has evolved dramatically over recent decades primarily due to the shift from passive, instructor-led pedagogy to more active, student-centered instruction.  The evolution is also due in part to the demand for development of a scientifically literate populace, which advocates that students learn scientific knowledge, processes, and attitudes through technology in their science curriculum.  Since science instructors are the most influential factor in educational reform that impacts student achievement, it is essential for instructors to know how to design technology enhanced courses (Duffee and Aikenhead, 1992).  However, many educators feel they lack the time and skills needed to develop instructional methods using technology.  Thus, technology is “tacked on” to the traditional course curriculum in the form of a special project or event (Pedersen and Yerrick, 2000).  In so doing, the benefits many students see from the regular use of technology are lost.  The following sections present examples of teaching techniques and publicly available software that can enhance the knowledge and understanding of geoscience through development of in in-class discourse community (via online learning communities), guided self-assessment (via electronic voting machines), and conceptual development and content presentation (via modeling and mapping software).

2. Examples of Technology Use in Your Class

2.1 Online Learning Communities

Online learning communities are virtual collaborative environments in which students can interact with the instructor and/or one another.  Studies have shown thoughtfully designed collaborative classroom activities provide several benefits, including bridging gaps in understanding and improving communication (Linn and Hsi, 2000; Rogers and Newton, 2001).  For example, activities that promote discussion may expand the views and ideas held by individuals, enhance understanding as the meaning of concepts is debated, organize knowledge through peer provided feedback, and promote reflection on notions which build connections in knowledge (Brown and Campione, 1994).  Verbal in-class discussion can result in low levels of student participation and engagement due in part to intimidation.  Moderated backchannel discussion boards and real-time chats take the pressure off by providing a sense of informality and allowing them to see their peers’ opinions.  Therefore, online learning environments are ideal for increasing communication and collaboration through online discourse (Hsi, 1997).

For example, the instructor may provide quick discussion starters that prompt a response, rather than lengthy instruction.  Examples may include “My hypothesis is…”and “I would test this hypothesis by…”.  This method also allows for students to interact with one another and give feedback to the instructor on their understanding of the material, thus providing greater inclusion and participation.  Backchannel discussion boards may be created at the “Padlet” website.  A backchannel chat may be created in “Google Classroom”, a part of the G Suite for Education, as well as the “Backchannel Chat” website.

2.2 Electronic Voting Machines

Over the past few decades electronic voting machines (EVM), or “clickers” as they are colloquially known, have seen increased use in large-enrollment classes.  EVM is a generic name for in-class polling systems used by students to answer multiple choice questions posed by the instructor during lectures.  Studies have shown that EVM can improve class dynamics and provide students with the opportunity to test their understanding of the material with immediate feedback from the instructor (Pedersen and Yerrick, 2000; Reay et al., 2005).  Often, students are required to purchase a physical EVM as part of the required course materials.  However, as an alternative to a physical EVM, instructors may use “Poll Everywhere” or the “Socratives” websites, which allows students to vote via SMS or the website.  The results may be presented in real-time with the option for moderation from the instructor on the presentation screen. 

2.3 Geologic and Geographic Modeling ProgramsFigure 1.  A 3D structural model created with GemPy. Photo from GemPy website.

Open-source modeling programs have been effectively used to increase concept development and content presentation in science courses (Kiboss et al., 2004).  While modeling software may entail a learning curve, much data and support are available in the form of data libraries and interactive tutorials.  An abundance of free, open-source modeling software and resources is available on the Wikipedia website, which has been posted in the appendix.  Two examples of such software are discussed below. 

GemPy is an open-source, Python based 3D structural geological modeling software, which allows for the creation of complex geological models from interface and orientation data (Figure 1).  Numerous datasets have been made publicly available, many with tutorials to teach the program using the accompanying data.  Students may use said data and tutorials to learn complex structural concepts that would be otherwise difficult to explain in a traditional classroom setting. 

Digital maps and mapping datasets may be created and manipulated on QGIS, an open-source geographic information system program.  Students can create, edit, manage, and export vector and raster layers and shapefiles, amongst many other things.  The students may manipulate datasets provided to them by the instructor or create their own.  Several tutorials are available on the QGIS Tutorials website.

2.4 Field

A student’s field experience can be supplemented or even simulated using technology.  Many researchers use Electronic Total Stations (ETS) and Global Positioning System (GPS) applications in their field investigations; however, this is rarely encouraged in introductory or lower-division undergraduate courses due to the convention of using the “pen and paper” method to keep costs low.  While many students may not have the opportunity to use hand-held technology until their upper-division courses, if ever, the use of technology can be implemented much earlier. 


Figure 2. Screenshots of the FieldMove application on an iPad.  All data was collected with the application.  Photos courtesy of Apple.

To supplement a traditional field trip, handheld technology, such as a smart phone or a rugged, field-ready handheld; like the Nautiz X6 or the XSlate R2, can be used to collect and manipulate data, read additional material, or watch instructional videos on-location.  Ideally, the data, spreadsheet, or other supplemental material would be pre-loaded on the device to ensure usability in a scenario where network connectivity is limited or absent.  In addition to paper-based notes, spreadsheets may be used to collect and organize data.  The instructor may distribute a Google Spreadsheet document, for example, for the students to fill out with their observations or measurements on their devices.  Thus, if the students were participating in a collaborative project, the data would be formatted and more easily distributed between the students once uploaded.

Geologic mapping can be done in the digital realm.  Tablet and smart phone applications may serve as digital basemaps, GPS trackers, and compass clinometers.  One example is Lambert, an Apple app, which records strike and dip, GPS location, time, and date.  The data can then be projected onto a stereonet on the student’s device or later transferred to a computer.  The apps FieldMove or FieldMove Clino act as a compass clinometer, digital notebook, stereonet, and drawing surface on which geologic contacts, faults, and outcrop polygons can be mapped over a digital basemap (Figure 2).  The digital basemap may be uploaded by the user from a computer prior to the field trip.

Alternatively, virtual fieldtrips can be implemented to bring the field to the students in the classroom, allowing for greater participation, inclusion, and ease of access to remote locations across the globe.  Virtual field trips may be conducted in multiple ways.  To simply visit an outcrop via an image, Outcropedia and various public sites (GigaPan) allow users to upload high-resolution photographs. Students can then search these websites for outcrop photographs (Figure 3).  When available, identical or similar hand samples or thin sections to the units examined in the photographs may supplement the traditional hands-on experience of a field trip.

3. Conclusion

Modern society demands scientifically literate individuals to make intelligent and informed decisions about the environment, resources, and health.  In addition to societal gains, companies have embraced the enormous efficiency gains by switching to electronic data collection and processing.  Big data is an inevitable outcome of the development of science.  Decades of research has resulted in the accumulation of a large amount of data and conventional methods can no longer handle such immense amounts of data.  Technology plays a vital role in students gaining and applying scientific knowledge as well as skills that will transfer to the workplace.  Geoscience educators at all levels should encourage such learning by incorporating technology into their curriculum.  A variety of technological applications can be used to deepen students’ understanding of geoscience concepts, promote student participation, build communities of learning, and expose students to world class outcrops they might never otherwise get a chance to experience.  The above examples serve as jumping-off points and are intended to motivate geoscience educators to incorporate and promote the use of technology in their classrooms.  An abundance of free resources is available online, and many are likely available for immediate download at any given educational institution.  In an increasingly paperless world, it is vital to engage students with the technology and techniques necessary to succeed in a future career in geoscience. Figure 3.  A screenshot from the Outcropedia website showing the Laacher See pyroclastic deposits in outcrop and map location.  The map is interactive on the website.


Brown, A. L., and Campione, J. C., 1994, Guided discovery in a community of learners, Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice.: Cambridge, MA, US, The MIT Press, p. 229-270.

Duffee, L., and Aikenhead, G., 1992, Curriculum change, student evaluation, and teacher practical knowledge: Science Education, v. 76, no. 5, p. 493-506.

Hsi, S., 1997, Facilitating knowledge integration in science through electronic discussion: The multimedia forum kiosk.

Kiboss, J., Ndirangu, M., and W. Wekesa, E., 2004, Effectiveness of a Computer-Mediated Simulations Program in School Biology on Pupils' Learning Outcomes in Cell Theory: Juornal of Science Education and Technology, v. 13, no. 2, p. 207-213.

Linn, M. C., and Hsi, S., 2000, Computers, teachers, peers: Science learning partners, Computers, teachers, peers: Science learning partners.: Mahwah, NJ, US, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, p. xxxv, 460-xxxv, 460.

Pedersen, J. E., and Yerrick, R. K., 2000, Technology in Science Teacher Education: Survey of Current Uses and Desired Knowledge Among Science Educators: Journal of Science Teacher Education, v. 11, no. 2, p. 131-153.

Reay, N. W., Bao, L., Li, P., and Warnakulasooriya, R., 2005, Toward an effective use of voting machines in physics lectures: American Journal of Physics, v. 73, p. 554-558.

Rogers, L., and Newton, L., 2001, Integrated Learning Systems - an 'open' approach: International Journal of Science Education, v. 23, no. 4, p. 405-422.


Appendix: Websites

Backchannel Chat:



Google Classroom:

Lambert: (also available in the Apple App Store)




QGIS Tutorials:


USGS Earthquakes Hazards Program:

USGS Volcanoes Hazards Program:

Wikipedia List of Free/Publicly Available Software: