Virtual Field Trip to the Blue Ridge Province, Central Virginia

Steve Whitmeyer and Lynn Fichter, James Madison University
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Initial Publication Date: June 15, 2020


The Mid-Atlantic Appalachian Orogen Traverse is a series of 4 virtual field trips that cross the Blue Ridge and Valley and Ridge geologic provinces in northwestern Virginia and northeastern West Virginia. This field trip is a virtual version of a field trip that is typically a component of a semester-long project for an upper-level undergraduate Stratigraphy, Structure, Tectonics (SST) class at James Madison University. The standard project includes a full-day field excursion, during which students visit sedimentary, igneous, and metamorphic rocks of the Blue Ridge Geologic Province in central Virginia. Students collect data on igneous and metamorphic composition and textures, stratigraphic and sedimentological features, and structural/deformation features. Students use the data they collect on the field trip to draft a cross-section that transects the Blue Ridge and then write a tectonic summary of the region that encompasses events from the ~1.1 Ga Grenville orogeny through the Mesozoic opening of the Atlantic Ocean.

The objectives of this virtual field trip exercise are similar to the standard on-location trip: synthesize igneous, metamorphic, stratigraphic, and structural field data to determine depositional and intrusional environments, and subsequent metamorphism and deformation, of the Blue Ridge Geologic Province. However, instead of personally collecting the data in the field, students are provided with a web-based Google Earth (GE) virtual field trip that covers the standard field locations, plus a few additional sites. The web GE presentation allows students to virtually investigate the field data at each location via text descriptions, outcrop and sample images, and at some sites, 360Ëš Street View and photo sphere imagery and/or narrated outcrop videos. Field data includes lithologic, mineralogic, and textural data, orientation measurements, and annotated outcrop photos.

Note that this is the second field trip in a series of 4 virtual field trips that encompass the Mid-Atlantic Appalachian Orogen Traverse project. The project components include:

            Field Trip 1: Stratigraphy and Sedimentology of the Valley and Ridge

            Field Trip 2: Virtual Field Trip to the Blue Ridge Province (This field trip)

            Field Trip 3: Rt. 211/259 transect

            Field Trip 4: Rt. 33 transect

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This exercise is used as a component of a semester-long tectonic synthesis project for the upper-level Stratigraphy, Structure, Tectonics couse at James Madison University.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be familiar with describing sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rocks. They should also have familiarity with deposition and intrusional environments and their relationship to tectonic events. Students are assumed to have been introduced to geologic cross sections and how to construct them.

How the activity is situated in the course

This is a component of a semester-long project, but can also be used as a stand-alone exercise.

Activity Length

The field trip is usually a day-long trip; the virtual version would probably take at least a half-day to navigate. The deliverables would take a couple of days of work, especially with instructor evaluation of draft versions.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Accurately interpret and describe depositional and intrusional environments, depict regional geology in a geologic cross section, synthesize field data in the context of theoretical models to describe the geologic and tectonic history of a region.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Higher order thinking skills include: analysis of data, formulation of hypotheses, synthesis of ideas, and critical evaluation of theoretical models in the context of field data.

Other skills goals for this activity

This is usually a team project, so teamwork is important, as are 3-D thinking skills for constructuion of the cross section, and technical writing skills for the geologic-tectonic summary.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Blue Ridge Field Trip is accessed with the link below; the virtual field trip automatically opens in web Google Earth. It does not run in desktop Google Earth. Once the virtual field trip opens in Google Earth, click on the "Present" button to start the field trip.

Google Earth Blue Ridge Virtual Field Trip

The PDF file that describes the exercise and deliverables, is available here: Exercise handout (Acrobat (PDF) 837kB Jun14 20)

A PDF packet of Supplemental Materials contains handouts and figures that are background materials for the field trip stops. It also includes a blank cross section box that students use for drafting their cross section across the Blue Ridge Province.
Supplemental Materials (Acrobat (PDF) 3MB Jun14 20)

A PowerPoint presentation that contains "Chalk Talks" for two of the outcrop discussions, is available here: Blue_Ridge_Chalk_Talks.pptx (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 36.8MB Jun15 21)

Technology Needs

The Blue Ridge Virtual Field Trip runs in web Google Earth; it will not run in desktop Google Earth. The Exercise handout and Supplemental Materials can be viewed in anything that displays PDF and PPT documents. Students will need to use a drafting program, like Adobe Illustrator, PowerPoint, or Google Slides to draft their cross section. A word processing program (Word, Google Docs) will be necessary for writing the geologic history of the region.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The Google Earth virtual field trip is mostly self-explanatory, such that students should be able to navigate the field trip on their own. The Supplemental Materials consist of handouts that the instructors present in class and use as background materials for explaining the environments and tectonics of the region. The Exercise handout introduces the exercise and describes the deliverables that students will need to turn in, which are 1. A geologic history of the Blue Ridge Province region, and 2. A geologic cross section across the Blue Ridge Province region. Students will likely need some guidance on how to construct a geologic cross section, especially if they don't have much experience with drawing cross sections. Likewise, students will likely need guidance on how to write summaries of depositional and intrusional environments in the context of tectonic events. Both constructing cross sections and writing tectonic summaries are typically iterative processes, where students submit multiple draft versions of these deliverables for comments and suggestions from the instructors prior to turning in the final versions.


Students will be assessed through iterative evaluation of their cross section and their geologic/tectonic summary. This process is most effective if draft versions of these deliverables are submitted several times, so that instructors can offer guidance and helpful comments to help students achieve the goals of the exercise.

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