VirtuaField in a nutshell

Astronomy, Geology and Geomorphology are sciences deeply relying on observation. In Aix-Marseille University, the laboratories involved in such formations do belong to the Pythéas Observatory of Universe Sciences (OSU Pythéas). It is then of paramount importance to train student to observation practices.

In geology and geomorphology, field trips are crucial for training students to infer scientific knowledge or information from the observation of landscapes, rock types, tectonic structures, etc. These training forms allow students to learn how to observe the targeted structures, how to interpret what they observe (i.e. to extract the relevant features from the observed structures), how and where to collect sampling data, etc. Field trips represent the place where they apply and compile in practice the skills they have acquired during their standard courses. However, even if field trips are essential and they should not be removed from the student cursus, only few are proposed to students during a scholar year due to time constraints (weeklong periods, etc.) and financial reasons (travel and accommodation expenses). Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to take students in certain locations, even if they are scientifically interesting for student backgrounds, because those places are inaccessible (e.g., cliffs, littoral outcrops, etc.) or dangerous for student groups (e.g., well-trafficked roadsides, steep and degraded areas, conflicting foreign zones, etc.). Finally, formations are more and more merged and it is increasingly required multidisciplinary backgrounds to students. This makes less possible to offer such training forms to students, as it requires time: small field trips last 1 day, but it may generally last 1 week or even more.

Thus, the primary motivation for this project is double: 1) providing more field trips to students for improving their scientific background; 2) training the students to the practice of field trips (field interpretations, data collecting, etc.).

The “virtual field trip” could be performed by a single student or by a group of 2, to 4-5 students, simultaneously. In other words, several students can be emerged in the same 3D scene: they can see and hear each other, one can show to the others a particular locations through laser pointer in the scene. Group sessions may be interesting but the single experience has also advantages. Indeed, in practice, it is not permitted to students to go alone in the field because of safety criteria, while a student will be able to go safely in the “virtual field” alone. This opens a new realm of possibilities concerning the “field trip” offering to students.

In Astronomy, the issue is different. It is impossible to humanly access to the extra-terrestrial surfaces. Therefore, numerical topographic data represent the only possible way to scrutinize celestial body surfaces such as Mars or the comet 67P/C-G. This project is designed to connect students to technological breakthrough in the exploration and interpretation of extra-terrestrial surfaces. It is important to train future generation of astronomers and planetologists to these new practices and technologies.