European Geologist Journal 50

Geoscience education using virtual worlds


by Eleonora Paris, Annalisa Boniello, Michelina Occhioni

School of Science and Technology, Geology division, University of Camerino, Italy



Virtual Worlds are immersive environments enabling situated and constructivist learning, where the learner is inside a computer-simulated environment. Here, activities and experiences can take place using different didactic approaches, engaging the students and enhancing the learning process. This paper describes design and experimental results of three-dimensional immersive virtual environments dedicated to geosciences teaching at school for 12–19-year-old students. The aim of the project was to test the educational effectiveness of the virtual worlds to foster knowledge acquisition and increase students’ interest in geosciences. A 3D virtual environment dedicated to geoscience topics was developed where students and science teachers were invited to visit paths on volcanoes, earthquakes, rocks, water and other themes relevant for the school curriculum, in a highly interactive mode, useful to engage digital-native students. Results revealed the high potential for this approach in geoscience education. The virtual environment was especially useful during the COVID-19 lockdown, when it was impossible to carry out laboratory classes and field trips.

Cite as: Paris, Eleonora, Boniello, Annalisa, & Occhioni, Michelina. (2020). Geoscience education using virtual worlds. European Geologist, 50.


During the COVID-19 lockdown, the need of online instruments to ensure teaching continuity became evident, due to the difficulty for the teachers to personally interact with the students and the cancellation of lab activities and field trips. This situation made geoscience teaching/learning more difficult, reducing as a consequence the interest in geoscience learning among the students, who were not able to enjoy the practical part of the lessons. The use of videos, the most common aid to showing Geoscience phenomena, can only partially overcome this difficulty, because of the lack of interaction, personal engagement or situated learning.  Universities and geosciences scientific societies started to collect useful tools and information on virtual outcrops or virtual databases of minerals/rocks/fossils, making them available to all (e.g. and references within;; These materials, although very useful, can be still difficult to use when teaching young students. The geoscience topics presented by the Earth Learning Ideas project represent a valuable aid in teaching geoscience at school ( even to younger students, although distance learning is still a problem to be solved when labs are necessary.

Gaming, on the other end, allows interaction and immersion, and serious gaming, applied already in many fields other than education (scientific exploration, health care, emergency management, city planning, engineering, defense, politics) has been proved to be an effective means to overcome the students’ lack of interest or learning difficulties, as well as becoming a widespread teaching approach. In this context, virtual worlds represent an effective tool, which can be successfully applied to Geoscience learning.

Virtual worlds (VW) are 3D computer-simulated environments accessed by the user in form of an avatar (the digital representation of the user), using the web browser or a graphical user interface (viewer) (Schroeder, 2008). VWs have the characteristics of being persistent (running whether the user is logged in or not) and accessible by a massive number of users at the same time, so they are also called MUVEs (Multi User Virtual Environments). The users/avatars are directly responsible for all that is created in the virtual world environment (differently from videogames, where the developers of the game create a fixed environment). Another important difference between virtual worlds and videogames is the absence of a game master deciding rules and missions.  The users move and act freely in VWs.

VW are considered constructivist platforms (Wilson, 1996; Jonassen & Carr, 2000). In fact, from a technical point of view they offer diversified tools to foster collaborative work and situated learning (see glossary). With the mediation of the avatar, the user really has the impression of living and acting in the world, interacting with objects and other avatars, sharing ideas and resources, accessing websites and reading documents, participating in proposed experiments or creating their own. The avatars can build interactive objects and scenarios, using a tool embedded in the viewer, and can model the terrains to obtain rivers, lakes, mountains or beaches, making them changing with time. They can travel within the terrains to explore rocks or outcrops, use instruments and tools like a hammer, magnifying lens or compass, or use geological and topographical maps. The avatar can walk, run, fly or sit, communicate by text chat or voice and use non-verbal communication like facial expression. In addition, the avatar can be customised and used as an actor in a movie (screencast video) to produce, for example, project presentations or illustrate an experiment. These characteristics allow the students to actively participate in knowledge acquisition, becoming protagonists engaged in what they are doing/learning. Being stimulated in attention to the object of the lesson, learner interest increases, allowing even difficult or abstract topics to be treated while learning at their own pace.

One of the platforms that meets all the features listed above is the open-source Opensimulator, which is a constructivist platform very suitable for teaching purposes. Because of these specific features of VW, researchers were quick to recognise the potential of Opensimulator for educational purposes (Allison & Miller, 2012), especially using inquiry-based learning methodologies, which emphasise the role of pupils in the learning process: students are encouraged to explore materials, ask questions, and share ideas rather than having the teacher transmitting information and knowledge.

Use of VW in Geoscience education

A research project in Geoscience Education using virtual worlds has been carried out at University of Camerino (Italy) in the last years, in the frame of a PhD program dedicated to Geoscience Education (Boniello and Paris, 2016; Boniello et al., 2017). The aim of this project was to evaluate the effectiveness of virtual world technology for geoscience education, using topics suitable for middle and high school students (the 12–19 age range in the Italian school system), designing and developing learning paths suitable for younger or older students (12–15 and 16-19 years old), using different levels of difficulty. In the following some paths are listed:

  • Palaeoisland – the fossils island – what is a fossil? How did they live? Where can they be found? Learn about the dinosaur Antonio (Tethyshadros insularis), how it was discovered, and visit the museum where it is located now (younger students, with links to zoology);
  • Volcanoes – to learn characteristics and differences of volcanoes in the world and where they can be found. Enter inside a volcano and learn how it works: (older students, with interdisciplinary links to chemistry);
  • A trip to the volcanic area of the Campi Flegrei (Italy) – to learn about the high volcanic risk in the area near Naples, the gas emissions in the caldera, earthquakes in a volcanic area (younger students, with elements of civil protection);
  • Earthquakes and Tsunamis – to investigate how they form, are measured and studied. Study of seismic waves and seismographs can be performed through lab work. The seismic areas in Italy (older students, with interdisciplinary links to physics);
  • Darwin’s trip – to learn about Darwin’s discoveries, following him in some steps of his trip, from atoll formation to the earthquake in Concepción (younger students, with interdisciplinary links to history and biology).

The learning paths are present both at the ground level of the island and at different heights on layers suspended in the air (Figure 1). The teacher can concentrate the activities on a single path or let the students explore more than one, in separate moments and even by themselves. The learning path can be used as an introduction to a geo-topic or as a practical activity to carry out after the lessons or as a separate project. In all cases, the student can benefit from a different teaching approach which can helps carry out observations of phenomena in 3D or events in 4D or study geomaterials transmitted by a technology close to their liking. Therefore, when the study of geosciences could be considered annoying or trivial, the interest can be triggered using a gaming approach, which stimulates the curiosity of proceeding along the path, acquiring knowledge to pass the tests, in order to reach the end.

Figure 1: The Unicamearth virtual island, showing the superposition of layers with the learning paths and activity areas. The avatars can move freely on the layers and go from one layer to the other. The paths can be used as proposed or can be implemented by teachers/students to integrate the contents or to approach a different topic.

Project UnicamEarth – A virtual experiment with Geosciences

In the Unicamearth Island the starting point is the ‘welcome area’, an informative zone where users choose the path or the area where they want to go by clicking on a map panel and “teleporting” to it. There is also a laboratory where teachers can do the training to familiarise themselves with the VW, create new paths and share knowledge and skills with other teachers. In the sandbox users can learn to build objects and program them. The description of the paths and the VW tutorial are freely accessible online (

Paths on water and the water cycle can be also found in “Techland” (Occhioni, 2017), where an entire island is devoted to water in all its aspects (chemistry, world resources, water footprint, domestic and industrial consumption, wastewater management) as well as to the water cycle. This island (Figure 2) is the product of a collaborative project completely planned and accomplished by 11–14-year-old students, testifying the abilities of young students to deal with the VW and to focus on a topic when they are fully engaged.

Figure 2: Waterland Island (in the Techland virtual world), is focused on water, from physical-chemical properties to its consumption and use for energy production. The students can enter the island and find information, documents and videos, links to websites, as well as homework and tests.

In Unicamearth Island, each educational path can be experienced by school students in sessions of about 60 minutes, and the paths were also translated into English to allow older students to use the island as a content-based foreign-language lesson, to learn English as well as geosciences. For testing the activities, questionnaires (pre- and post-activity, evaluated by a Likert scale and multiple choice) have been used to determine: (a) the engagement and immersion of the students in the activity, (b) the acquisition of knowledge about geoscience topics, (c) the acquisition of digital skills and soft skills, and (d) the evaluations/suggestions/criticism from the teachers participating in the testing, which are useful to improve the activity. The teachers previously introduced to the use of VW and the content of the island have also been interviewed to obtain as much information as possible. During the activity, the teacher always acted as an external observer, to check the activity of each student and report any problem or difficulty.

Volcanoes path

The path on volcanoes, for example, is an informative and explorative serious game divided into seven areas of investigation, taking about one hour to complete. Teachers can choose the path or just leave the students free to explore. Students can use a ‘guided sheet’, with information useful to perform the activities. The design of the virtual environment has the aim to engage and reengage students in every step, following the principles of recursive learning (Pivec et al., 2004). Students learn by exploring the environment, reading and interpreting texts, searching for information and data, exploring three-dimensional volcanoes models, observing and studying igneous rocks with documents and images they find along the path. For example, when they learn about the distribution of volcanoes on the Earth they can then also visit the earthquake path, or investigate magmas and volcanic eruptions, with simulation of different styles of eruptions and classification of volcanoes (Figure 3). They find and compare pictures and videos of recent eruptions, pictures and maps of old eruptions, simulations of various kinds of eruptions, learn about Vesuvius and the Latin historian Pliny the Old, who died during the eruption. They can investigate magma composition, role of gases, viscosity, explosive behaviours and volcanic products.

Figure 3: Steps of the volcanoes path, where the students can walk inside a volcano or observe different types of eruptions in a 4D mode. They can also travel to the centre of the Earth.

A visit to the centre of the Earth offers many points of discussion and interaction with the earthquakes path. They can visit the Campi Flegrei area (Figure 4) and investigate seismic hazard and risks in highly populated areas and learn about bradyseism. In this path they also find an activity on rock classification, which is a topic usually carried out in the lab with hand samples or in the field. Here they can choose a rock sample, rotate it, check the minerals it contains, use a magnifying lens and look inside the structure of minerals, making the study more attractive than only reading from a book (Figure 5).

Figure 4: The path of volcanic area of Campi Flegrei, near Vesuvius (Napoli, Italy), where the students learn about the gas emitted in the caldera and the phenomenon of bradyseism. A schematic virtual representation of the Macellum, a Roman building in Pozzuoli, which shows the variations of the sea level on the columns, helps visualise the results of the bradyseism affecting the area.

A problem-solving activity and a questionnaire are always present at the end of the path, helping the teachers to verify the acquisition of knowledge. Here, a final activity on volcanoes is proposed, variable with students’ age (build a volcano, find a picture of a volcano whose shape is similar to yours, check out the rocks produced by a volcano, look at important eruptions in the Earth history…). This can represent also a follow-up of the path, to be continued at home as homework or at school as a link to continue working on the topic.

Figure 5: Learning about igneous rocks and the minerals they contain. It is possible to see their characteristics, rotate the rock samples in every direction, use a magnifying lens and look inside the structure of minerals.

Earthquakes path

This path can be experienced by students at various levels, and is composed of topics regarding earthquakes, all related one to the other. Students can follow the yellow ways in the paths, full of images, animation, interactive objects, videos and simulations, or they can freely explore the area, which is divided into the following topics:

1) earthquakes and tsunamis (definitions and examples, effects of earthquakes, tsunamis and their effects);

2) earthquake distribution on Earth (investigating correlation with volcanoes, plate tectonics) with possibility to connect to the volcanoes path;

3) seismic waves and seismographs, with a lab activity and interdisciplinary links to physics, and extra activities for the older students about seismic waves in the Earth (link to the trip to the centre of the Earth). Also, there is a prompt for high school students to start a class project about seismic hazards and the seismic risk of the area they live in.

4) Richter and Mercalli scales: how they work and what they mean.

5) If there is an earthquake, how do you protect yourself? Here the student can simulate the safety behaviour in the classroom during an earthquake. Clicking on objects, they can choose an action and immediately verify if it is the correct one (e.g. stay inside under your desk or run outside?). This activity is particularly dedicated to younger students.

This path offers options to more in-depth analysis. It gives in fact the possibility to discuss about catastrophic earthquakes and their effects on population, as well as to make other multidisciplinary connections with current events, safety, seismic engineering, civil protection rules and behaviour and other social aspects. Students can start a project in the path, implementing it with their own documents or presentations. Older students can also access the Disaster Cycle path, to learn about the various steps of disaster management. This path has been developed to introduce students to the work of civil protection officers and professionals, dealing with geological hazard and risks. It allows them to learn how the Italian civil protection system is structured and works in the case of an emergency. The path has been tested by university students in geology programmes.

Figure 6: The earthquakes path, showing a tsunami representation, with information on how they form and why. A lab activity shows a seismograph and how it works, allowing observations to be discussed with the teacher or classmates or to be further investigated using the available information and the interdisciplinary links with physics.

Virtual Geoscience Education: What could be learned so far?

The testing of the effectiveness of the paths has been carried out on 520 students from middle and high schools and 83 teachers. Teachers’ observations on their own students during the activities, as well as interviews with the teachers aimed at investigating behaviours and attitudes, revealed that students were enthusiastic and very focused during the learning units. This was expected, but a further result was that the virtual world experience helped reduce the divide between students –as digital natives – and teachers, favouring better inclusion in the learning process, even of those less prone to study geosciences. Regarding knowledge acquisition, the evaluation of questionnaires administered to the students and similar to normal school tests demonstrated that the results obtained by the students using the VW were 23% higher than those of the control group. The simulation of a scientific context, which allowed the situated learning experience, positively affected students’ motivation to learn, as noted also in biology studies (e.g. Clark, 2009).

In teaching geoscience at school, several concepts and Earth processes occurring in geological timescales are often difficult for young students to grasp or conceptualise. A virtual world can help them to visualise and follow phenomena in 3D or 4D modes, or to simulate environments otherwise not accessible (such as a magmatic chamber or a volcano). The reconstruction of Darwin’s trip, where the student/avatar is Darwin himself immersed in a role-play game and storytelling, triggers curiosity and fascination with adventure. It offers the students the chance to identify with the actor of the discoveries, a young Darwin, giving them the feeling of being a geoscientist at work.

Older students and young adults feel perfectly at ease in the VW environments they use also for social entertainment. VW are not seen as poor drafts of reality, but just as something completely different, a tool to use as they play a videogame. VWs are already used for instruction, e.g. in teaching safety rules, and could find useful applications in training in the use of instruments or analytical techniques. One potential application of VW is in building up virtual fieldtrips by assembling maps and satellite images, organising virtual outcrops made of videos and 3D scans, uploading presentations and documents. An environment can be created where a student can use the compass and a lens or a virtual microscope to look at rocks in thin section and microfossils. Many universities have already been forced to organise similar activities to partially overcome the difficulties introduced by the COVID-19 in education, but VWs offer also a wide possibility for interaction between instructors and students during “field or lab work”, as well as actual evaluation of tests and individual projects.


Virtual worlds can be extremely powerful instruments for geoscience education, engaging the students’ attention in geoscience topics, providing also a valuable alternative laboratory and field activities or integrated into traditional teaching, while favouring acquisition of both knowledge and soft skills. During the COVID-19 lockdown period, VW allowed the teachers to actually carry out practical activities, confirming the positive outcomes obtained in the previous experimentations of the VW paths. The students, who missed the social aspects of school, were able to interact positively with classmates in individual or team activities.

Nothing will ever substitute an enthusiastic teacher in the lab or in the field, sharing passion for discovering Earth systems! However, since the use of technology is intrinsic in the life and habits of young students, who appreciate new trends and novelties, the use of virtual learning environments is also reasonable, if they can favour better communication of geosciences.


The authors would like to thank the schools and teachers taking part in the experimentation of the VW activities, but also those who continue to use the paths, giving useful feedback. The members of the UnicamEarth group of Geoscience education at University of Camerino are acknowledged for the collaboration.



A digital representation of the user in a digital environment.

Collaborative learning

Collaborative learning is the educational approach of using groups to enhance learning through working together. Groups of two or more learners work together to solve problems, complete tasks, or learn new concepts.


Constructivist views of learning in science suggest that learners can only make sense of new situations in terms of their existing understanding. Prior knowledge is used by learners to interpret observations; meaning is constructed by individuals in a process of adding to or modifying their existing ideas.

IBL (Inquiry based learning)

Inquiry Based Learning (IBL) is a term used to encompass a variety of instructional methods, all of which centre around learning through the inquiry process or, more generally, learning by doing.


Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) are environments that have been digitally created to allow users to interact with each other and the digital environment through the use of avatars.


Opensimulator ( is an open- source server platform for 3D virtual worlds, born in 2007. It can be considered the open source counterpart of Second life. In fact, they are very similar, so the user can access both the worlds with the same viewer. Today Opensimulator has developed several new features and extensions that are suitable and useful for teaching purposes, like for instance the possibility to run the program in one’s own server, complete user access control and better customisation.

Recursive learning

In this model of learning the educational path is divided in steps, where students are continually ‘re-engaged’ in every step using challenges and proposing activities to reinforce learning.


A screencast is a digital video recording of the computer screen and usually includes audio narration.

Serious game

The word ‘serious game’ was born in recent years to mark games with educational purposes.

Situated learning

According to Jean Lave, the originator of the Situated Learning Theory, learning is unintentional and situated within authentic activity, context and culture. Knowledge needs to be presented in authentic contexts, settings and situations that would normally involve that knowledge. Social interaction and collaboration are essential components of situated learning.


In a virtual world .teleporting is an action to instantly move the avatar from one zone to another in the world.


A videogame is a game which we play thanks to an audiovisual apparatus and that can be based on a story.

Virtual worlds

“A virtual world is a spatially based depiction of a persistent virtual environment, which can be experienced by numerous participants at once, who are represented within the space by avatars” (Bell, 2008).


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Jonassen, D. H. & Carr, C. 2000. Mindtools: Affording multiple knowledge representations for learning. In S. Lajoie (Ed.), Computers as Cognitive Tools, Volume II: No More Walls. Lawrence Erlbaum Inc., New Jersey. pp 165-196.

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Pivec, M., Koubek, A., Dondi, C. (Eds.) 2004. Guidelines for Game-based Learning. Pabst: Lengerich, Germany

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This article has been published in European Geologist Journal 50 – Let’s become geologists! Challenges and opportunities in geoscience education in Europe

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