How Exeter University is using tech to fly students to the Arctic

The University of Exeter is immersing students in 3D virtual explorations of glaciers, ice flows and coastal erosion with a digital tool that has caught the attention of major environmental organisations. Gill Hitchcock reports.

Credit: Christine Zenino/CC BY 2.0  Image has been cropped

Imagine trekking across the Greenland ice sheet, stopping to explore small, peripheral ice caps, or flying to the Arctic for a panoramic tour of glaciers. Thanks to University of Exeter academics, these are just some of the virtual field trips available to students who previously learned about these geographies from textbooks.

It is the brainchild of Steven Palmer, Damien Mansell and Anne Le Brocq, senior lecturers in physical geography at Exeter’s College of Life and Environmental Sciences. They have taken the latest advances in 3D imaging and created a tool, Interactive Virtual Environments for Teaching and Assessment. Known as InVEnTA, it enables students and researchers to explore of some of the world’s most challenging environments.

“Over the past year, we’ve been looking into the practicality of using the latest 3D visualisation techniques familiar to computer gamers, to take students on virtual field trips,” says Palmer.

“Instead of controlling weapons in a shoot-em-up game, with InVEnTA, students can control where they go in the virtual landscape. It helps them visualise what is happening and understand the processes underway. As well as teaching, this is also useful for scientific research.”

Palmer, Mansell and Le Brocq all specialise in studying ice sheets and glaciers. As part of their research, they use drones to collect high-quality 3D data sets and were keen to use these for teaching. They realised, however, that there was no existing software tool to enable them to do this.

Their ambition coincided with the opportunity of support from the University of Exeter’s Education Incubator. This internal scheme backs the development of innovative teaching methods. In 2017, the trio of academics were granted funding for one year.

Palmer and his colleagues already had the expertise to create 3D data sets, using radar or satellite-derived imagery from third parties, plus their own surveys from drones. The latter is “the higher resolution, more realistic stuff”, as Palmer puts it. 

“We found that students using InVEnTA to explore certain learning objectives were much more engaged than students using traditional methods.”
Steven Palmer, University of Exeter

What they lacked was software-development skills, such as coding to develop the software to ingest the data sets and turn them into an interactive virtual environment that an educator or learner can interact with.

This task was subcontracted to Devon software developer Questionable Quality, a small company created by former computer science and software engineering students from Plymouth University.

“The biggest technical challenge is developing the workflow, to make it as easy as possible to obtain and ingest different types of 3D data,” says Palmer. 

“We are working on expanding the types of data the software will be able to handle. At the moment it is somewhat limited to OBJ files, a standard 3D image format, and STL files, often used for 3D printing.” 

A multimedia experience
Palmer describes InVEnTA as basically two software apps. First, a creator app used by the educator to build a virtual 3D landscape and space. Second, a viewer app, so the learner can log in and explore virtually. 

While the viewer is on their virtual field trip, they can walk or fly up to visual signposts which trigger multimedia content. This might be a video, an audio description of what they are looking, explanatory text, or a link to an external web resource.

It is embedded with sounds that are triggered when the visitor enters a virtual space.

“One of the first applications of InVEnTA has been to teach about the processes causing coastal erosion around the UK,” Palmer says. “We find that having the ambient sounds of a coastal setting, waves on the beach, seagulls flying around, actually help to build that level of immersion.”

After the initial funding expired, there was good news: the Education Incubator committed to continuing its support so the trio could take InVEnTA into the classroom.

“We did a systematic evaluation of how engaging the students found this tool,” says Palmer. “And we found that students using InVEnTA to explore certain learning objectives were much more engaged than students using traditional methods.

“Then there is an inverted learning use where you are getting students to be the creators and have the ability design that virtual environment. The educators use a viewer to assess and evaluate what they have created. In that way, we can assess their understanding of the processes, and that aspect is unique.”

From the get-go, this tool was meant to be versatile. The software can be used for anything that can be realised as a 3D object, be it archaeological artefacts, protein structures in life sciences, or DNA helixes. 

Currently available on a desktop or smartphone, Palmer says he and his colleagues are exploring the potential of expanding InVEnTA (pictured below left) so it can be used with virtual-reality headsets.

They are developing a commercialisation strategy too. The idea is to distribute the viewer app with a clickwrap agreement and license the creator app to institutions. 

“It’s early days yet, but we are expecting development to be finished around Easter,” he says.

They have had “early talks” with national environmental organisations. Among the virtual experiences offered by InVEnTA is a visit to an area of south Devon hit by coastal landslides. 

“One organisation is interested in terms of public education around the safety of walking near the top edges and bases of sea cliffs,” he says.

The academics would like secondary-school teachers to use this tool as part of their teaching. Indeed, anyone with a computer can experience the virtual environment with this tool. It requires no formal training, but Palmer and co are designing online tutorials and FAQs to help non-specialists use the creator app.

Last November, InVEnTA was up for an international award for excellence in educational innovation at the Reimagine Education Awards in San Francisco. While it did not win, Palmer says the tool attracted lots of positive feedback. 

“We intend to re-position ourselves and get nominated again this year, when the awards will be in London,” he adds.

Sam Trendall

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