Fieldwork is an essential part of any Earth Sciences degree with the average geology graduate having spent weeks, if not months, of their time at university hammering rocks, collecting samples and gaining general experience outside of the classroom. At University College London, a two-week trip to Andalusia to study the geological and tectonic history of the region makes up a significant aspect of our third and final year of study. This year, however, instead of travelling out to the rocks of southern Spain, the field was brought to us…
When the first reports on the emergence of a novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China reached the British media it would have been hard to imagine the scale to which it would grow, let alone that it would engulf our own, seemingly safe, island. As statistics sky-rocketed, however, and we watched the virus jump ever closer, first to Italy then to the rest of Europe, Britain included, it became clear this was not simply a ‘Chinese virus’. Being a third year Geology student with an upcoming field trip to Spain, I was amongst the first in the UK to feel the effects of this fast-spreading disease as travel restrictions grew stricter by the day. On March 11th a pandemic was declared by the World Health Organisation; two days later our university department cancelled all field trips – both within the UK and abroad. The initial disappointment was quickly replaced with relief as the following day Spain announced a nationwide lockdown and, from our own locked-down country, we embarked on the next best thing: a virtual field trip.
Given the digital age we live in, the concept of a virtual educational experience is not a new one, with subjects such a medicine and engineering making regular use of high-tech, zero-risk simulations. When it comes to geology, however, the idea of an entire 12-day trip among the rocks of sunny Andalusia condensed into a series of video lectures and a lot of reading, culminating in a 5,000-word report, didn’t immediately sound like an appealing alternative. Yet, as the weeks progressed and we clicked and scrolled our way through the Sierras of southern Spain, this initially disheartening substitute began to come into its own.
Due to the significant lack of rocks, we were completely reliant on digital information to decipher the geology over which we would have hiked. The hard work of our professors provided us with an abundance of online resources from written text and diagrams to a vast collection of photographs from previous years. This was complemented by numerous videos in which the field trip leader talked us through each outcrop of rock, just as he would have done in the field, along with weekly zoom meetings allowing for discussion and individual questions.
Despite the loss of valuable field experience, not to mention the sun, sea and Spanish tapas, some elements of the virtual field trip turned out to be surprisingly beneficial. For starters, we were able to take the trip at our own pace and over a longer time period, as well as the added bonus of pausing, rewinding (and sometimes even fast-forwarding) our lecturers – a luxury yet to exist in the field. Additionally, the elimination of travel allowed time and energy, often lost during hours spent in a minivan along Spain’s autopistas, to be used more efficiently, not forgetting the carbon emissions saved by staying put.
In all, while a simulated experience may not always live up to its real-life standard, this uncertain world of pandemics and climate change, paired with ever-evolving technology, could mean that solutions lie closer to home as our education, travel and many other aspects of daily life become increasingly virtual.