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Western Illinois Professor Leads Geology Students on Virtual Field Trips

October 30, 2003

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MACOMB, IL - - A picture is worth a thousand words, and sometimes thousands of miles for Leslie Melim, an associate professor of geology at Western Illinois University.

Melim uses pictures of various rock deposits to create a “virtual field trip” for students in her 300-level sedimentology course. She will share this information with colleagues from across the world as a presenter of innovative teaching approaches at the 115th Annual Meeting of the Geological Society of America (GSA), Nov. 2-5, in Seattle.

“I’ve been using a virtual field trip component in my classes for the past several years, but this will be the first time I’ll formally bounce it off other sedimentology professors,” Melim said.

She developed the lab project out of her desire to share her many geological experiences with her students.

“My geological education was in an extremely different area,” Melim said. “I studied on the West Coast, which has a lot more depositional environments than we find in the Midwest. Where we can go and what we can see around Macomb - - or any location - - is limited not only by the geology of the region but also by time and money.”

That’s the advantage of a virtual field trip.

“Virtual field trips are not single photos. Rather, the idea is to specially take a series of 4-10 photos that mimic a field trip stop,” she explained. The first shot is always a distant photo, basically giving the context. Later photos give progressively more detail. These weekly ‘field trips’ labs synchronize with lectures of depositional environments.”

The benefits of the virtual field trips are twofold.

“One is that students learn to take good field notes,” Melim said. “Two, I can show them a variety of depositional environments unavailable to us in our location.”

Incorporating the virtual field trips into PowerPoint presentations has also proved beneficial, allowing a student who misses a lab the ability to easily make up an assignment.

“I eventually want to put the virtual field trips on CDs for students to use as study tools,” Melim added.

Melim said anecdotal evidence suggest students remember virtual field trips better than lecture presentation of photos and student scores on photo interpretation during the final exam have risen since the virtual field trips were introduced.

Presently, Melim has seven virtual field trips created from pictures she has taken in her travels around the nation.

“I’m hoping that after my presentation at the GSA other sedimentary professors will want to share some of their photos, which I could use to create more virtual field trips for our students,” Melim said.

“It would be nice to eventually get a database of photos that professors across that nation could use in their teaching,” she added.

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