Virtual Landscapes Geological Mapping

Jacqueline Houghton, University of Leeds, UK
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A virtual landscape is a virtual reality environment designed to develop geologic mapping and field skills. They include natural landscapes where the geology can be mapped, and interactive 3D block models of topographic and geological maps. The worlds can be found at

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Virtual landscapes are designed to be used in class/lab activities, but can also be used independently online. The simpler landscapes are designed for upper college, the more complex are undergraduate level.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

The concept that the type of rocks seen across a landscape can vary in a systematic way that can be recorded to produce a map. Guidance will be needed in the different mapping techniques, what symbols to use etc as these are not directly covered on the site. All readings are given in strike/dip/dip direction.

How the activity is situated in the course

There are multiple activities that can be centred round the virtual landscapes. The 3D topographic map can be used to introduce students to the concept of reading the landscape from a map. The 3D geological maps allow students to observe how changes in the strike or dip of a rock change the outcrop pattern and can be used to encourage students to develop their own rules for how patterns change. The mapping landscapes can be used before going on the first geological mapping field trip and as part of the geological maps course.

For other Teach the Earth pages using Virtual Landscapes see References and Resources below.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

Skills developed include how to plot field data, understand the different methods of field mapping, how to create a geological map. They develop 3D visualisation skills and provide accessible alternatives to fieldwork for those unable to go in the field.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Understanding the 3D nature of geological units and how these are shown on 2D geologic maps. How to extrapolate isolated and spatially distributed data to create a map.

Other skills goals for this activity

Other skills include producing a geological map and associated cross sections and stratigraphic columns. The data can also be written up in the form of a field report.

Description and Teaching Materials

The activity is online at The landscapes can be played directly online or downloaded for offline use. We recommend downloading the landscapes as this gets round slow internet connections etc. The accompanying field slips are available for download. Ideas for exercises and activities for the different landscapes are in the following document together with some background information:

Solutions to the exercises and field slips with outcrop localities marked on them are available via the TeacherStash.

  • Download all files as a zipped file: ,
    or individually:

Teaching Notes and Tips

Students tend to rush round the mapping landscapes collecting data as fast as possible without thinking about interpretation. We encourage students to slow down and plan their routes across the landscape in a time efficient manner. We strongly emphasise the need to understand the geology as they work and to draw boundaries as they go along and not treat it as a "join the dots" exercise. We suggest they work a transect first to get an overall idea of the geology and then map the boundaries.


The goal of the mapping landscapes is to construct a geological map and cross section. Completion of this and comparison with the answer allows students to see what they have done correctly and where they have gone wrong. This can be used as either formative or summative assessment.

References and Resources

Website with the landscapes, field slips and instructions is

Other pages using the Virtual Landscapes: and

Houghton JJ; Lloyd GE; Robinson A; Gordon CE; Morgan DJ (2015) The Virtual Worlds Project: Geological mapping and field skills, Geology Today, 31, pp.227-231. doi: 10.1111/gto.12117