Preparing for Student Creation of Virtual Contexts for Exploring Geoscience Environments

Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday 8-11am PT / 9am-12pm MT / 10am-1pm CT / 11am-2pm ET Online


Aida Awad, Maine East High School
Hemalatha Bhaskaran, James M Bennett High School
Mark Carpenter, American Geological Institute
Edward Robeck, American Geosciences Institute
Steven Semken, Arizona State University at the Tempe Campus

The importance of field experiences in geoscience education cannot be overstated. While a virtual field trip cannot substitute for the physical experience of being in a place, exploring sites of geoscientific and environmental interest through concise but rich virtual contexts (VCs) can support field trips in several ways—especially when the VCs are grounded in the principles of place-based education. A virtual context is a virtual space in which students are actively engaged in planning and making decisions about generating a product for a specific purpose. This workshop will familiarize participants with a framework and several practices developed to guide learners in the creation of VCs for environmental and geoscience explorations that interweave natural and cultural elements of the place under study for increased relevance and interest to students. We will integrate theories of place-based learning and of learning from media to build VCs, moving from the identification of curriculum-relevant themes through the identification of media, including data, storyboarding and construction. Strategies for using Google Earth Projects and ArcGIS StoryMaps as platforms will be discussed and implemented. Participants will create a VC as part of the workshop.


Students gain enthusiasm for geoscience phenomena by seeing how those phenomena relate to real-world places the students can visit in person and/or virtually. Empowering students to design their own media can greatly enhance their motivation and engagement in learning about those geoscience phenomena and the associated field sites. As the learners choose media elements--photos, videos, data sets, etc.--and make decisions about how to present them, they become involved in processes that integrate prior knowledge with ideas to be learned, connecting those ideas to specific places where the phenomena are relevant. In this workshop, participants will learn to use the Google Earth Projects platform to help their students produce what we refer to as "virtual contexts," which are virtual spaces in which students are actively engaged in planning and making decisions about generating a product for a specific purpose. We will apply principles of place-based education and theories of learning from media, while also considering instructional strategies (e.g., media storyboarding) that can be used when working with students to create their own virtual contexts in support of specific instructional outcomes.

Workshop Program »

Target Audience

This workshop is designed for educators who want to engage students in the creation of virtual media as a way to investigate geoscience phenomena using place-based and field-focused instructional principles. Whether you want to break down anxieties that result from novelty space, develop familiarity with a place that exemplifies a particular geoscience concept, or identify ways to integrate student voice and creativity into courses, this workshop will provide an entry point across geoscience content areas, expertise levels, and grade levels.


  • Create "virtual contexts" to achieve specific curricular outcomes using Google Earth Projects (with some attention to ArcGIS StoryMaps) with a focus on field settings that exemplify geoscience phenomena.
  • Explore strategies for guiding students in the construction of virtual contexts using varied media that the students collect and/or that are available freely online, including photos, videos, photosphere, publicly available datasets from government agencies, and others.
  • Learn and apply the five design elements of place-based education in the construction of virtual contexts for learning.
  • Become familiar with a framework and processes developed to guide learners in the creation of virtual contexts for environmental/geoscience explorations that highlight values of the place under study—including scientific, historical, cultural, and aesthetic and other human values.
  • Integrate the theoretical approach to learning from media on which this project is based to enhance learning by empowering learners' decision-making regarding the use, organization, and assembly of media into meaningful products.


The design of this workshop is highly interactive and practical, with enough theoretical background to explain and guide steps that are learned to generate a product and prepare to work with students in similar ways. Each morning will begin with an overview of the day's work, leading into short presentations that incorporate small group processing and work time. The facilitation team brings an array of expertise in geoscience, pedagogy, technology, and the design of instructional programs across K-16 levels. This is a "workshop" in the truest sense in that participants will work together and with the facilitators to collaboratively learn and create meaningful virtual contexts that will serve as instructional tools, and also as prototypes for their work with their students. Participants will share their work as they design and construct it, and as they develop a plan for the implementation of virtual contexts in their courses. Each morning will conclude with a short wrap-up session and planning for the following day. The goal is for everyone to leave the workshop with a complete or nearly complete virtual context and a plan to implement virtual contexts in at least one specific geoscience-related course.

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