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How Queen’s Researchers Built a 3D Visualization Tool for Geological Samples

Learn about the virtual learning environment that Dr. Georgia Fotopoulos and her students in Geological Engineering at Queen’s University in collaboration with Esri Canada are creating to help students understand the relationship between rock samples and their geological environment.

Esri Canada’s Education and Research Group supports innovative research at Canadian universities, collaborating on projects with faculty and students in a variety of disciplines. One recent collaboration was a project funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and involved the Education and Research Group led by Dr. Brent Hall and Dr. Georgia Fotopoulos and her students in the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering at Queen’s University. The purpose of the project was to develop a virtual learning environment that would place geological hand samples into geological and geographic context to help students visualize the relationship between meso-scale samples and the macro-scale environment.

Geological samples (e.g., rocks) and outcrops are within a range that humans can observe without the aid of instruments. The tangible aspect of hand samples, whether physical samples or 3D digital models, can help to reduce the layers of abstraction inherent in geological maps by making the content realistic. In a virtual environment, 3D models of samples can be linked directly to points on a map, allowing users to visualize real observations and data from the field more explicitly while retaining the benefits offered from traditional map interpretation. It also allows them to make links across hand samples to the broader regional geology where the samples were found, which might include the lithology of the rocks present, the orientations of faults or the morphology of fossils present.

Graduate students Rebecca Hudson and Alex Harvey in the High Performance Computing Lab in the Department of Geological Sciences and Geological Engineering at Queen’s University.

The two students working on this project, under the guidance of Dr. Fotopoulos and Esri Canada staff, were Alex Harvey and Rebecca Hudson. Alex is a master’s student in Geological Engineering. Rebecca recently completed a Bachelor of Applied Science in Geological Engineering and is starting a master’s degree this fall. Using a close-range desktop laser scanner, they created a database of digital 3D hand samples. In addition, Alex built two custom widgets using Web AppBuilder for ArcGIS (Developer Edition). During two visits to the Esri Canada offices in Toronto, Alex had the opportunity to consult with staff and receive help developing the code.

The widgets were designed to view the 3D samples that have been linked directly with their geographic locations of origin and visualize a set of heterogeneous regional geophysical maps simultaneously, such as magnetic or gravimetric surveys. The web app enhances students’ understanding of conceptual geological models that explain rock mass origins and behaviour. It also provides an opportunity for anyone to visualize hand samples and observations associated with those samples that were previously inaccessible because of where or how the samples are stored.

Example of the 3D Viewer and blending tool developed at Queen’s University. The map on the left showcases geological features of the area surrounding Kingston, Ontario. The View3D widget on the right provides a snapshot of a scanned rock sample from the region.

To show how geographic context can provide more depth when communicating information, Rebecca worked with Dr. Fotopoulos to create a story map based on the life of Captain Alan Innes-Taylor, an important figure in both Arctic and Antarctic exploration. In 1935, Captain Innes-Taylor donated samples that he had collected in Antarctica while on the Admiral Byrd expeditions in the early twentieth century to the Miller Museum of Geology at Queen’s University. Some of these samples were scanned as part of the virtual learning environment project. Next steps for the project include continuing to populate the virtual geological database that was created and to move towards further integration with online Esri platforms and cloud storage.

Do you know of other virtual learning environments that combine maps with other data to help students understand abstract concepts? Share your stories with us!

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Developer and Analyst in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. Her responsibilities include developing resources for use by students and faculty at colleges and universities, focusing particularly on LiDAR, JavaScript and Android app development; collaborating on projects with researchers at select universities; and coordinating the Esri Canada scholarship programs. She has a PhD in Geomatics Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and also holds the Esri ArcGIS Desktop Associate Certification.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins