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Research in Death Valley boosts undergraduate skills and confidence

The team used NASA technology popularized by the Mars Rover mission to take super high resolution Gigapixel images of one of the most beautifully austere landscapes on Earth (photos courtesy of Ulrich Wortmann, department of earth sciences)

On a clear desert evening last November in Death Valley National Park in California, a group of intrepid University of Toronto teachers and students took a break from their work and – appropriately enough – snapped pictures of the dazzling night sky.

It was a fitting end to another successful day of trailblazing field research, using NASA technology popularized by the Mars Rover mission to take super high resolution Gigapixel images of one of the most beautifully austere landscapes on Earth.

The pictures, taken on the 10-day field trip by Ulrich Wortmann, an associate professor in the department of earth sciences and undergraduates Xueya Lu, Alicia Hou and Syn Leong, were the first Gigapixel images ever captured of three important geological locations in Death Valley, including some terrain so rough it could only be reached with a four-wheel drive vehicle.

“The students struggled at first, and then it got easier every day as they learned to adapt and overcome,” says Wortmann, noting the challenges ranged from working with equipment in gusting winds to chasing the right sunlight conditions for detailed pictures.

“When you study on campus you are faced with all these artificial problems and writing tests, whereas when you are out in the desert, you are figuring out real life problems, and that gives you a lot of confidence.”

The dual purpose of the expedition – conducted under the auspices of the Faculty of Arts & Science Research Excursions Program – was to explore the potential for “experiential learning” that Gigapixel imagery offers both in the field and in the classroom, he says.

The technology takes thousands of high-resolution pictures in a grid-like fashion that are combined into one gigantic image, and then integrated with Google Maps so the image can be examined in a 360-degree view, from full scale down to the smallest pebble.

The locations explored were textbook examples of classic geological environments such as volcanic deposits, and the images captured will be shared with students and professors at the university, as well as the wider scientific community, and on the web.

“You can go to that picture and zoom in and walk around it and explore it,” says Wortmann, adding that because Gigapixel imagery is uniquely suited to geology, it is rapidly creating a new field.

“It’s all about how you get the student there mentally, to actually interact with what is in front of them, and get an idea of the space.”

The geology students who accompanied Wortmann say they had a sense of making a real scientific contribution, even as they learned first-hand the value of field research versus classroom instruction.

“I’ve been able to relate things I learned on the trip to all my other classes,” says Lu, who will be making a presentation to an international conference about the group’s experiences. “It sort of ties everything together and gives it a new level of meaning.”





Lu said she learned to temper her habit of getting frustrated when things didn’t go right, a lesson not lost on her fellow students either.

Mornings would start early as they drank hot tea and munched on home-made Muesli, then started scouting locations and prepping for the day’s shoot, hiking around the area and talking geology while they waited for the best sunlight.

“I’ve never been in the field before so I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I definitely feel more confident now, like I have an advantage over my classmates,” says Hou, who served as the group’s resident photography expert.

Leong said the group learned about the value of teamwork, each focusing on a different task, such as checking the images for any missing pictures as the day went on, and doing the procedure over when required.

“You look for ways to apply your knowledge and make sense of what you’ve learned,” says Leong. “We didn’t expect some of the challenges we faced, but we’d discuss what to do, and fix the problem, and then we’d really understand.”