This Virtual Geology Lab ‘Rocks’
He already had 3D photography software and a drone on hand for a volcanology research project. But with some quick thinking and the help of five students, an idea was born.
“When I learned I had to switch my GEOL 286 class, Introduction to Rocks and Minerals, to an online format, that meant losing access to all the physical samples in the lab,” Andrews said. “I thought the idea of a 3D model would work well in an online classroom because I study volcanoes. Volcanic rocks often look a bit unusual compared to other rocks. Their actual shape means something as opposed to just being a piece of stone or a piece of rock on the ground, so it’s important to document those details carefully.”
In preparation for WVU’s switch to remote learning in mid-March, the project team spent their entire spring break photographing and making 3D models of more than 100 rock and mineral specimens, then annotating and cataloging them online for the world to see.
Now, all of WVU’s introductory geology classes – and other geoscience students around the world – have all the rocks and minerals they could ever need to learn about at their fingertips, 24/7.
The collection is housed online at sketchfab.com, a global home for all types of 3D models, like computer games, architecture, sculptures and other art forms.
“There are millions of 3D models on this website. I thought if you can do this with a building or a vase or something in a museum, then you should be able to do it with a rock or a mineral. I researched it and went from there,” Andrews said. “Now there's a small subset of 3D rocks and minerals on the site.”
The site’s massive, diverse archive was their challenge. Its search function isn’t particularly user friendly, so Andrews wanted to simplify it to make the rock and mineral models more accessible to all professors and teachers.
“We knew lots of people would have to teach online in fall 2020 and possibly spring 2021, whether it’s K-12 schools, homeschooling, community colleges or four-year universities. The demand for these models is growing really, really fast, but there was no searchable catalog. We wanted to change that.”
– Graham Andrews, Associate Professor of Geology
“We knew lots of people would have to teach online in fall 2020 and possibly spring 2021, whether it’s K-12 schools, homeschooling, community colleges or four-year universities,” Andrews said. “The demand for these models is growing really, really fast, but there was no searchable catalog. We wanted to change that.”
Andrews and his team spent the summer developing a searchable database using Google Sheets. With WVU’s collection and collections from partner universities on the site, they have documented more than 1,000 3D models to date – and counting. The searchable database, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, was published on Monday, Aug. 17, ahead of the start of the fall 2020 semester.
“This database gives us the chance to do some quality control and make it easier for users. We made a tool that's actually geologically useful so that professors and teachers anywhere can go in very quickly and find the particular model they want to check out rather than spending hours scrolling through the website,” Andrews said. “The long-term benefit is that all these things are permanently available for online teaching.”
While it’s difficult to replicate the experience of holding a sample, the 3D models are the next-best thing.
“You can rotate them, and the color is very accurate,” Andrews said. “We annotate each specimen, and then students can just click on the annotation to learn more. There are other advantages, too. In many instances, I only have one sample of a particular mineral because it is rare or expensive. So even in an on-campus lab, the students have to pass it around, which is really limiting and time-consuming.”
With all the different collections contributed from universities around the world, Andrews and his students now have access to more rock and mineral specimens than ever.
“The students like having the 24-hour access they wouldn't have in the lab. They can access the database on their phones,” Andrews said. “If you bring it up on an iPhone, it actually shows the specimens in artificial reality, like when you’re playing Pokémon Go. They’re not scared of the technology at all.”
Andrews admits there was a lot of skepticism at first about using the models because of certain limitations, like touch.
“You cannot feel the weight of a specimen or test how hard it is because a 3D model is not tactile,” Andrews said. “But all professors have to do is change the questions in such a way so that it’s still pedagogically sound. It's actually works just as well as having a real specimen – it just forces you to ask the questions differently.”
He has also used the 3D models to expand his curriculum by integrating Google Earth, leading students on virtual field trips to demonstrate exactly where specimens originate.
“You can embed links in Google Earth to a location. Take Yosemite Valley in California, for example. I can have a 3D model of a rock from Yosemite Valley and then target Google Earth, taking the class on a virtual field trip to see Yosemite National Park,” Andrews said. “They can click an icon on the map, and it will show them a 3D model of a rock like they had just gone and hit the hammer and picked up the rock themselves.”
For more advanced classes, Andrews can also expand the data integration to include chemistry, mathematics and physics.
“You can make the experience more sophisticated for higher-level classes by adding in more details. Here's a chemical analysis of the rock. And here's the age of the rock. And here's a photograph of a microscope slide of the same rock. You can layer in different scales, different types of data,” he said. “This is important because it's the only way to get a full conceptualization of a specimen.”
Geology sophomore Gabrielle Labishak, originally a student in Andrews’ spring GEOL 286 class, is part of the team creating the models and searchable database. Using Google’s remote desktop software, she spent the spring 2020 semester creating models from her home in Zanesville, Ohio.
“My favorite part is watching it all come together at the end and comparing the actual rock with the model on the screen. I’ve been enhancing my understanding of complex software and technology, but the most important skill learned through these models is patience. Seeing the final result makes it all worth it.”
– Gabrielle Labishak, sophomore
“The fun part is combing through the computer-generated model and fixing the mistakes. Sometimes it’s bits of artifact pulled in from the background of the pictures; other times it’s mismatched pieces of rock. It’s always challenging and exciting to figure out how to remove and perfect them. After every rogue pixel is removed and each rock face is matched up and aligned, I overlay textures, which make the rock look authentic,” she said. “My favorite part is watching it all come together at the end and comparing the actual rock with the model on the screen. I’ve been enhancing my understanding of complex software and technology, but the most important skill learned through these models is patience. Seeing the final result makes it all worth it.”
More than 600 students from WVU alone have already used the 3D models in their geology lectures and labs this semester.
“Many geology professors spent their summer collecting rocks and minerals and physically breaking them up into 50 samples to make collections and then mail them to students,” Andrews said. “If you knew the pandemic was going to happen and that you would be teaching remotely in advance and had the budget, you may have had the chance to do that,” Andrews said. “But most people haven't had that. So, they're just scrambling. This approach has been one of the best alternatives to helping students learn. It's by no means perfect, but it’s pretty good.”