EarthCube’s StraboSpot Develops Digital Tools for Geosciences Educators

Multiple Programs Team to Address Distance Learning Needs Amid Pandemic

Students in the field making notes on tablets.
Students utilize the NSF-funded EarthCube’s StraboSpot for a University of Kansas undergraduate geology field research program.

In mid-March, EarthCube’s StraboSpot team realized that their summer field camps were unlikely to occur as the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The StraboSpot team organized the initial community-based response to best determine how to share resources to deal with the near-certainty of canceled field camps. By mid-April, the researchers had teamed with multiple other community members to offer a variety of virtual field experiences, including repackaging and utilizing StraboSpot for online learning.

“This project has really benefited the geoscience teaching community and helps everyone provide robust capstone experiences for students – even when they cannot be in the field,” said the National Association of Geoscience Teachers’ Executive Director Anne Egger.

Initially established in 2015 as a shared database for geologists to remotely collect and journal field data, StraboSpot expanded as an EarthCube-funded activity into broader community use in 2017. The researchers had already started working on ways to develop novel mobile applications for multiple research communities.

The pandemic pushed the team to develop an educational component of the StraboSpot system; this is now listed on the home page at strabospot.org.  One example exercise includes making a stratigraphic section in a well-exposed area in the San Rafael Swell, designed by Casey Duncan and Marjorie Chan of the University of Utah.  The exercise guides students through a series of stratigraphic layers within the Jurassic Carmel Formation. Students gain practice in recognizing and describing sedimentary rock types and sedimentary structures in the field.

This map guides the students to locate the StraboSpot field site.

“We quickly established several geoscience exercises that provide students with virtual field experiences based in StraboSpot,”said Basil Tikoff, University of Wisconsin professor and StraboSpot co-principal investigator. “These exercises, in addition to other great resources developed by the community, can partially substitute for the lack of field experiences for undergraduate geology students.”

X marks the spot: At last! the students found their destination and now will study this site with the StraboSpot tool.

The StraboSpot organizers also took advantage of the unusual “summer of no fieldwork” in 2020 to expand their activities for house-bound field geologists.  They have run free webinars for sedimentologists, structural geologists, and metamorphic petrologists to familiarize these communities with the StraboSpot system.  In addition to introducing the StraboSpot field applications, these workshops have highlighted the recently launched StraboTools, designed to aid geologic fieldwork by providing image analysis tools for use in the field. The app was developed to work with plutonic rocks such as granite, but can also be used to examine any rock and could be used to study thin sections. The app analyzes a photograph and provides detailed, quantitative information. It was developed in direct response to a stated need by the petrology community at a StraboSpot workshop in the White Mountains in 2018.

“It was great to be part of such a robust community-based effort in which everyone was pitching in,” said Tikoff.  “This crisis has also made it very clear that the future is digital, and that StraboSpot is one way that geologists can be part of it.”

Funding for StraboSpot was provided by National Science Foundation Award Numbers 1928389 and 1639734.

-Kimberly Mann Bruch

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