The master’s degree programmes Earth Structure and Dynamics and Earth Life and Climate at Utrecht University, The Netherlands, include the option to join a research-oriented fieldwork in the Betic Cordillera, SE-Spain. The fieldwork is a 200-hour course where the students learn how to set up and develop a field project with a specific research question, and write a report on the results in a publication format. Students work in teams of two with their own research questions and working area. The focus is diverse and ranges from tectonics, basin development, structural geology or metamorphic geology, to environmental and climate related topics in terms of sedimentology, stratigraphy, paleontology and biogeology.
Covid-19 restrictions have prevented conducting this fieldwork in the last two years. To avoid study delays, the field course has been converted into a virtual fieldwork that that took place in the same academic time slot as the usual field study. This conversion has also allowed the creation of new working methods and virtual resources to benefit in the future.
The virtual fieldwork was focussed in the same subareas as the real fieldwork; in the Sierra de los Filabres metamorphic range (structures and deformation history, petrology and metamorphic history) and the adjacent Sorbas basin (kinematic and depositional evolution). We compiled data sets with measurements of bedding and sediment transport directions, foliations, fold axes, (stretching) lineations and shear senses along shear zones, and faults in both areas. We also collected field photographs, including panoramas of key outcrops. For the metamorphic range, full-scanned thin-sections were available by using the ZEISS ZEN lite as a Digital Microscope for Thin Section Analysis. Detailed sedimentological columns were also available in the Sorbas Basin, as well as geo-referenced geological and topographic maps for all areas.
The students studied and worked with the fully geo-referenced material by making use of Google Earth or their converted equivalent in shape files. They analysed the outcrops in the same way as they would do in the field, had to decide on what exact data to use and how to combine observations to answer their research questions, in combination with existing relevant literature.
In our presentation, we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of our virtual field work. The combination of prefab data sets and extensive use of literature resulted in more in-depth insight in the evolution of the studied area than has been reached in the past in a normal fieldwork. In contrast, the students learned less on how to filter the right observations form the overload of data available in the field, and they got less experience in dealing with uncertainties. And, not unimportantly, they had less fun. We believe that an optimal combination of preparing student fieldwork with virtual datasets and onsite fieldwork is the future way to advance fieldwork learning.