WashU’s Fossett Laboratory launches easy-to-use apps for active learning

Dr. Phil Skemer uses GeoXplorer to visit Devils Tower in his living room. Photo courtesy of Dr. Skemer.

Washington University’s Fossett Laboratory for Virtual Planetary Exploration has developed an iOS and Android app that allows students to explore geological structures through their phones.

The app, GeoXplorer, was first envisioned in 2016 and has since been developed across several platforms by Dr. Phil Skemer, Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at WashU, Dr. Martin Pratt, a research scientist in Earth and Planetary Sciences, and undergraduate researchers in computer science. The augmented reality technology allows individuals to visualize and interact with three-dimensional data through a device.

Skemer, Pratt and their team first developed an app for the Microsoft HoloLens, a step that marked a major milestone for the scientists. The Center for Teaching and Learning wrote about this process in a previous post.

In 2019, the team started adapting versions of its HoloLens app for iOS and Android devices. David Lie-Tjauw and Brandon Mooney, undergraduates in computer science, spearheaded this project. The iOS version of GeoXplorer came out in Fall 2019 and the Android version was released in May 2020.

A sample model in GeoXplorer. Photo courtesy of David Lie-Tjauw.

The app could not be easier to use, Skemer said. A user is prompted to select one of hundreds of 3D models (the current version has collections that include planetary surfaces and geologic outcrops). Once the model is downloaded, the user can place it anywhere in their environment, whether it’s in the middle of their living room or on top of their bed. Once it’s positioned, the user can walk around the model to explore it from any perspective. They can also resize, move, and rotate models by tapping and pinching the touchscreen.

“As someone who teaches courses in physical and structural geology, displaying, describing, and conveying information about 3D shapes and planetary features has always been a challenge. GeoXplorer offers new possibilities for visualizing and interacting with three dimensional data. It also allows students to explore places that are might be physically inaccessible due to their location or their scale – Mars, for example!” Skemer said.

Users can move and manipulate a model through intuitive touches. Photo courtesy of David Lie-Tjauw.

Even though the technology was originally developed long before the coronavirus pandemic, the app is especially useful during this time when more instructors are turning to digital teaching methods to reach students.

“As we have begun to reimagine hybrid teaching during the COVID-19 outbreak, it is clear that instructors need to consider how we can conduct demonstrations and activities simultaneously across classrooms, dorms, and far-flung homes,” Skemer said. “GeoXplorer is free, quick to download, and easy to deploy just about anywhere with a wifi connection. I’m really excited to use this in my Fall class because it will provide students with novel ways to learn about geology regardless of where they are physically situated.”

GeoXplorer was developed specifically for teaching in Earth and Planetary Sciences but its applications are broad. It could be used in other academic disciplines whose core concepts are inherently 3D such as biology, medicine, and art.

It’s also a great active learning tool. Instructors can assign students a project where they use GeoXplorer to examine a specific object or compare objects across sites to determine their history or function. Because the technology is flexible, activities can be done synchronously or as take-home assignments.

Skemer and his team plan to work with instructors at WashU to deploy GeoXplorer more broadly in multiple academic fields.

“We hope it will provide a new tool in Wash U instructors’ teaching toolkit. We at the Fossett Lab are excited to collaborate with instructors across WashU to add specific teaching modules for courses, develop new datasets, or new functionality,” Skemer said.

If you would like to download the app, you can do so here.