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How 3-D modeling helped U geologists teach during COVID-19

Hands-on geology outreach continued during the hands-off pandemic.

Geoscience is a three-dimensional discipline. So 3-D modeling, in the form of virtual and 3-D printed real-world models, has found a home in the U’s Department of Geology and Geophysics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, instructors expanded their 3-D modeling efforts to continue to provide students a hands-on experience, while minimizing the number of hands on any one object.

Sarah Lambart – Modeling rocks and minerals

Students of mineralogy and petrology traditionally learn to identify minerals and rock textures using hand samples and thin sections viewed through microscopes. For classes during the pandemic, both undergraduate and graduate students from the department worked on the development of a virtual library of rock, mineral and fossil hand samples, available here.

PHOTO CREDIT: Sarah Lambart

A sample of olivine basalt from a 2018 volcanic eruption in Hawaii. Explore the 3-D model of this rock (H10) above.

In 2020-21, four classes used the digital library, in what assistant professor Sarah Lambart calls an “initial exploratory effort,” that was partially funded by an internal University Teaching Grant. Instructors improved the scale and resolution of the library, and are now working to redesign laboratory assignments around the digital models. “In particular,” Lambart says, “we plan to couple the 3-D models with images of petrographic (microscopic) thin sections from the same samples to provide multi-scale resources for these classes.”

Future high-resolution additions to the collection will include samples from Utah with detailed petrographic, geochemical and stratigraphic information. “We want to highlight Utah samples that students can relate to from places they commonly visit,” Lambart says.

Jeff Moore – Modeling arches


3-D printed models of rock arches.

It’s hard to wrap a tape measure around a massive natural arch. That’s why associate professor Jeff Moore and his research team use 3-D modeling instead to capture the geometry and structure of arches and other rock formations. “We typically use drones to capture images of all angles of these features, then 3-D modeling software to generate the geometries,” he says.  We post these on Sketchfab, which helps us to be able to fly around each landform and look at it from all angles, as well as to share publicly.” The models have phenomenal scientific value, and are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce.

The arch models have come in handy for outreach events. 3-D printed versions give people a chance to touch and interact with a feature, Moore says, and during the COVID-19 pandemic the researchers have shared the virtual models with colleagues and students. It’s a way for people all around the world to experience Utah’s redrock landscape.

“Kids love the VR experience,” Moore says. “They always giggle and holler at the sensation of heights they get when exploring 3-D arch models.”

Corona Arch by Univ. of Utah Geohazards on Sketchfab


Kathleen Ritterbush – Modeling anatomy

Associate professor Kathleen Ritterbush is a hands-on learner, and brings tactile experiences to her paleontology classes, whether it’s a small class in a room with real fossils or an auditorium-style lecture hall with packs of toy dinosaurs. “I brought in 3-D printed bones to pass around, including skulls so the students could feel the different kinds of holes in the heads,” she says. “But I wanted to do more.”

So, Ritterbush designed and produced 3-D printed models of animals, both dinosaurs and non-dinosaurs, with a range of hip and ankle conditions to teach anatomy. “You know how it looks like birds’ knees are backwards? That’s not a KNEE! It’s an ANKLE!” she says—a concept difficult to convey on a 2-D chalkboard or PowerPoint slide. The models come in two versions—one fully fleshed out and one showing the leg bone structure.

When COVID-19 precipitated a sudden move to online classes, Ritterbush commissioned 3-D printed skulls of AllosaurusUtahceratops, wolf and owl in durable resin for each student to keep, and used her custom hip-and-ankle models in “Café Dino” discussions, informal outdoor teaching sessions. “I also use the models when I Zoom, either recording explainers for my students or chatting with them about fossils live,” she says. “People just learn differently with physical objects: even if they aren’t holding it.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Kathleen Ritterbush

3-D printed resin skulls of, left to right, a wolf, Utahceratops, Allosaurus and owl.

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In 2021-22, with the World of Dinosaurs course continuing to be offered online, Ritterbush plans to continue providing skulls for students, as well as using her teaching models in Café Dino sessions and in the Evolving Earth course. “People love the models. They are silly, lifelike, evocative and fun,” she says. “The future is now, and if we can imagine it we can do it. There’s no reason to grasp at straws for teaching—in person or online. We have the tools to put these specimens—animals, bones, rocks, etc.—directly in our students’ hands.”