Where do students struggle in the field? Computer-aided evaluation of mapping errors from an undergraduate Field Geology summer course
Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Extended field-based summer courses provide an invaluable field experience for undergraduate majors in the geosciences. These courses often utilize the construction of geological maps and structural cross sections as the primary pedagogical tool to teach basic map orientation, rock identification and structural interpretation. However, advances in the usability and ubiquity of Geographic Information Systems in these courses presents new opportunities to evaluate student work. In particular, computer-based quantification of systematic mapping errors elucidates the factors influencing student success in the field. We present a case example from a mapping exercise conducted in a summer Field Geology course at a popular field location near Dillon, Montana. We use a computer algorithm to automatically compare the placement and attribution of unit contacts with spatial variables including topographic slope, aspect, bedding attitude, ground cover and distance from starting location. We compliment analyses with anecdotal and survey data that suggest both physical factors (e.g. steep topographic slope) as well as structural nuance (e.g. low angle bedding) may dominate student frustration, particularly in courses with a high student to instructor ratio. We propose mechanisms to improve student experience by allowing students to practice skills with orientation games and broadening student background with tangential lessons (e.g. on colluvial transport processes). As well, we suggest low-cost ways to decrease the student to instructor ratio by supporting returning undergraduates from previous years or staging mapping over smaller areas. Future applications of this analysis might include a rapid and objective system for evaluation of student maps (including point-data, such as attitude measurements) and quantification of temporal trends in student work as class sizes, pedagogical approaches or environmental variables change. Long-term goals include understanding and characterizing stochasticity in geological mapping beyond the undergraduate classroom, and better quantifying uncertainty in published map products.