Yonathan Admassu: Using Analyzing High Resolution Topography with TLS and SfM in Field Geology (GEOL 399) at James Madison University

About this Course

This is an upper division summer field camp program for junior and senior geoscience majors. Students come from James Madison University and a variety of other schools. It is taught in Ireland.


3 days of field time and evenings
spent on data analysis and write-ups.
Summer field camp

Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 36kB May8 18)

I designed and taught the Unit 2.1: Geodetic survey of an outcrop for road cut design part of this module as a 3-day project within a 6-week summer field camp for geology majors. Student really seemed to enjoy learning a practical application of structural geology. They had of course learned how to take strike and dip, but now saw these same features inform safe road construction--that was a real eye-opener for them. Most geology field camp project pertain to understanding geologic history or possibly ongoing Earth processes. Using geoscience learning to help inform practical societal decisions was new to many students. Students also gained a variety of skills that can be applied to other facets of geoscience--simple surveying of topography and X-Y-Z coordinates and the ability to generate high resolution topography from overlapping photographs. Although I choose to emphasize structure from motion, terrestrial laser scanning can also work well for Unit 2.1 and I used it with undergraduate students in other courses.

Students were really excited by the idea that they could make a 3D model from smart phone pictures and use that to help design a safer road.

My Experience Teaching with GETSI Materials

I just used Unit 2.1 as a standalone--teaching how to conduct a simple SfM survey (essentially Unit 1-SfM) in the context of doing road cut slope design.

Relationship of GETSI Materials to my Course

The project took three days out of a six-week summer field camp. It was done roughly halfway through the time, but could really have worked anytime after students gain practice taking strike-dip measurements and good field notes. Later sections in the course did not build on these particular skills. This project did require more lecture and computer time than a typical field camp exercise.


The students exercise (graded by the accompanying rubric) was the summative assessment for the unit. During field and lab work, informal discussions with the students helped to make sure they were on track. Deliverables from Days 1 & 2 also helped me to ensure the students were making the needed progress.


I had really wanted the students to gain skills in spatial reasoning, high resolution topography generation, and geological engineering. These outcomes were realized. The students came away from this project with new skills applicable in other geoscience disciplines -- SfM and simple surveying. I have subsequently had students take what they learned in field camp and use SfM on other geoscience applications such as stratigraphy.

Students learned how to apply principles from structural geology to the practical application of designing safe roads. I did find, however, that students were more confident if I did not use the term "engineering", which they automatically assumed they would not be prepared to do. I suggest not telling them until afterwards that they have engaged in engineering.

One aspect that turned out to be more important than I had initially realized was the simple surveying and generation of their own X-Y-Z coordinates. This very concrete spatial reasoning experience really seemed to help them in other aspects of geoscience learning. Without the experience of measuring their own points, they really did not seem to internalize the process.