Information Technology for Field Science Education and Research



What's New?

Presentations and Publications

Use Cases









Erin D'Maggio and Jake Marson, GS-440 students, mapping with the GeoPad -- here an Xplore Technologies iX104 TabletPC -- near Snake River, WY. (July 2003)

Fieldwork is a cornerstone of many scientific disciplines, such as geology, biology, environmental, anthropology, archaeology, natural resources, sociology, etc.  It is generally the first-step in the scientific process of gathering, analyzing, and interpreting data.  Whereas subsequent steps are typically accomplished once one has left the field, providing access to all such capabilities while still in the field significantly enhances the educational and scientific practices within these domains.  The GeoPad project seeks to do this by integrating off-the-shelf components to provide a real-time data fusion system for collaborative fieldwork.

Recent innovations in Information Technology (IT), especially in the form of increasing portability and new haptic interfaces for personal computers and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and advancements in Geographic Information System (GIS) software, enable in-the-field, real-time access to powerful data collection, analysis, visualization, and interpretation tools.  The benefits of these innovations, however, can only be realized on a broad basis when the IT reaches a level of maturity at which users can easily employ it to enhance their learning experience and scientific activities, rather than the IT itself being a primary focus of the curriculum or a constraint on field activities.

Three-dimensional view of geology near Camp Davis, data from scanned USGS Geologic Quads. (Screenshot of ArcScene.)
Three-dimensional view of geology near Camp Davis.  Data from scanned USGS Geologic Quads. (Screenshot of data in ArcGIS/ArcScene.)

We envision the GeoPad as a combination of novel technologies that strive to reach that level.  Generally speaking, the GeoPad is a rugged TabletPC equipped with wireless networking, a portable GPS receiver, digital camera, microphone-headset, voice-recognition software, GIS software, and supporting, digital, geo-referenced data-sets. Scientists will be able to go out in the field as a group or individually, collect GPS-referenced data and share the data instantaneously with each other and with data fusion collaboratories hundreds of miles away. Furthermore, they will have on-demand access to the large database, data summarization and visualization resources at these distant centers to request site-specific data. The ability to monitor the data and the location of the data gatherers instantaneously creates a group intelligence or context that is not normally possible using traditional field techniques, such as field notebooks. Real-time data gathering and fusion capabilities also allow anomalies or missing information to be discovered and investigated while the data gatherers are still within the physical vicinity.

GS-116 Student using GeoPocket to record position during GPS-Topo exercise. (July 2004)

GS-116 Student using a GeoPocket -- here an HP5550 iPAQ and iPAQ Bluetooth GPS -- to record position during their GPS-Topo exercise. (July 2004)

Under some educational and research scenarios, portability and cost become the two dominant acquisition factors, relative to computationally-based capabilities.  In such settings, a more portable, less expensive combination of these novel technologies maybe desired.  We look to handheld-computing technologies or PDAs to fulfill this role, and envision the GeoPocket as a solution, albeit a solution with reduced capabilities.   Essentially, the GeoPocket is a PocketPC PDA equipped with wireless networking, GPS, GIS, and supporting, digital, geo-referenced data-sets.  It is easier to transport, requires less maintenance, and reduces overall costs compared to the GeoPad, however, those benefits come at the expense of what can be accomplished.  Mapping exercises in particular are drastically affected by the reduction in screen real-estate, which supports an inadequate level of contextual information.  The GeoPocket can be used effectively to support other field activities, however, such as data collection, stereonets, modeling, etc.

Amy Nowakowski and Jim Hnat, GS-440 students, complete their Snake River mapping project back in the classroom. (July 2003)

We explored the potential of such innovative field-oriented IT in an initial case study in field geology education.  In summer 2003, we integrated GeoPads into the University of Michigan's field Geology course (GS-440), based out of Camp Davis, Wyoming.  In particular, we focused on geologic mapping exercises, a fundamental component of which is developing good spatial reasoning skills.  We believe that the field-based access provided by the GeoPad to advanced visualization and analysis techniques augments the development of such skills.

For summer 2004, we expanded integration of GeoPads and GeoPockets to include three courses; in addition to our continued focus on the capstone field geology course (GS-440) for geology majors, we also included brief trials in our introductory-level geology course (GS-116) and our environmental science course (GS-341).  We also continued to evaluate new hardware and software options.  During Winter 2005 we integrated GeoPad-based activities in the core geology curriculum, focusing initially on our Structural Geology course (GS-351/451). 

GS-341 student sketches a map of glacial geologic features over a USGS Topographic Quad and aerial photos.

Summer 2005 saw full integration of GeoPads and GeoPockets in GS-440, and expanded integration in GS-116 and GS-341. GS-440 projects included geologic mapping and a magnetic survey.  GS-341 included a geologic mapping, ecosystem mapping, and Excel-based analysis and modeling of ecosystems.

In Winter 2006 we will be including GeoPad- and GeoPocket-based field activities as part of our new GIS in Earth Sciences course (GS-408).  In addition, we will also be integrating GeoPocket as active-learning aides and responder systems in large-lecture courses for Introductory Geology (GS-117/119), Global Change I (ENVIRON-110/AOSS-171/BIO-110/ENSCEN-171/GS-171), and Extreme Weather (AOSS-108); see for more details on this aspect of Pocket PC usage.

Key benefits of these approaches include the ability to instantly visualize and manipulate field observations and their relationships to other contextual data using GIS in two- and three- dimensional frameworks, and improved ground-truthing through the use of GPS in conjunction with digital maps, coupled with the ability to directly annotate the maps. We are also investigating the use of GeoPads to support field trip activities, where wireless networking can be used to enable collaboration and enrich discussion, through the use of application sharing between field vehicles.  For example, an instructor in one vehicle can point out and comment on interesting features, and occupants in other vans can follow along on their GeoPads and digital maps; having a real-time shared pointer during such collaborative interaction is an important enabling enhancement for such activities. Additional data and information can also be loaded onto the GeoPad to facilitate discussions, (e.g., thin section images, figures or tables from publications, schematic diagrams of features or processes, digital photographs).

Standard two-dimensional mapping interface in ArcGIS/ArcMap showing student's mapping data overlain on a USGS Topo Quad.

Three-dimensional view of the same information in ArcGIS/ArcScene, which can be manipulated and updated in real-time as data is added in ArcMap.

The GeoPad project is an extension of the collaborations that were established between geoscientists and computer scientists in the GeoWall and the Continuum projects.

For more information please contact


  [] [updated 27-Jan-2010 ]
  Copyright 2003-2010 The Regents of The University of Michigan