Geo Week News

February 15, 2011

UT-Dallas takes tech to the field

02.15.11.UTDallas2

3D scanning+iPad+3D display=engaged students

DALLAS — In a world of immersive first-person video gaming, social networking, ubiquitous mobile devices, and HD TVs in every home, how do you make the world of geology—of rocks—exciting to kids entering college? Well, at the University of Texas at Dallas, they play that game, too. 

When students go out into the field to check out rock outcroppings nowadays, they carry iPads with them. Those iPads are loaded with 3D images of the very outcroppings they’re looking at, and they can drag their fingers across the screen to take measurements of the outcroppings right in front of their faces. Those measurements and notes are then transmitted back to a central server, so that by the time they’re back in the classroom, looking now at a 72-inch 3D display, their work and findings are ready to be examined by their professor in front of the rest of the class. 

And, yes, they’re all wearing those 3D glasses. 

“You have to be impressive to knock them off their chairs,” says Georgia Fotopoulos, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at UT Dallas. “You have to let them know that these are your options for working in the field. You’re not going to be in your office and just writing with pen and paper or filling in columns in Excel. That’s not what a scientist or engineer does anymore.”

Watch a video here of the work they’re doing at UT Dallas:

UT Dallas is a little ahead of the curve in this area. Professors Xueming Xu and Carlos Aiken were early pioneers in using laser scanning, photogrammetry, and digital satellite positioning to create what they defined as “cybermapping,” patented in 2003. Because of this, Dallas has a number of scanners from all the major manufacturers—even a new helicopter outfitted with Velodyne scanners—and an institutional knowledge of using this technology in the petrochemical industry, for example. 

“We’re developing ideas that have been 10 years in the making,” says Fotopolous, who is a geomatics engineer, focusing on the way humans interact with the land. “Now the technology is economical enough to bring it into the classrooms, so when the professor is demonstrating, the kids can actually ‘visit’ the site.”

But it’s not just that these are better tools for teaching concepts, it’s that the tools keep the students interested at all. “We’re very much interested in bringing technology into the classroom, so that we can connect with the students again. It’s difficult to just stand there in front of the classroom anymore. They’ve gone far beyond that now in their normal lives. So we’re trying to integrate technology into the classroom in a meaningful way.”

Plus, they must just think the lasers are cool, right? “I don’t actually think laser scanning itself is all that exciting,” laughs Fotopolous, “nor is collecting GPS data. When I bring my students outside to do labs, I talk about how exciting it is, and then they just go outside and hit the button, and they can’t actually do anything. It’s so easy to use that there’s not thing that fun about it in itself.

“They get hooked when you show them the results,” she says. “With the photorealistic model, they can relate the two, the real thing they saw and the model they’ve created, and then they compare things and they get into it because it’s familiar to them.” 

Georgia Fotopoulos, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at UT Dallas, will present as part of the “Engaging Youth” track at SPAR International, in Houston, on March 24. To learn more about the conference, visit www.sparconference.com.

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