How 3D rock models are advancing research on the power of online learning

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rep rocks brande 550pxThe rock doc: Scott Brande, Ph.D., teaches undergraduates how to identify rocks and minerals — in person or online. With the coronavirus pandemic shutting classrooms around the world, his online tutorials have attracted faculty and students worldwide.If you’re looking for pictures of The Rock, the internet is happy to oblige. If you’re after high-resolution, carefully labeled rocks not named Dwayne Johnson, however, those are not so easy to find online. At least, they weren’t until the Rock Doc stepped in.

Dr. Rock — he also goes by @DocFossil on Twitter, a nod to his background in paleontology — is Associate Professor Scott Brande, Ph.D., of the UAB Department of Chemistry.

Brande has taught a popular introductory physical geology course at UAB for two decades. Its accompanying lab class leans heavily on Brande’s personal collection of rocks and minerals, acquired from locations around the world. Students study minerals and rocks in four “portable labs” that Brande has created out of plastic fishing tackle boxes from Wal Mart. Or they could, before the global coronavirus pandemic forced UAB to cancel in-person instruction for the spring semester.

Lugging boxes of rocks around campus was never ideal, Brande said. “So about five years ago, I started to look for a technology solution.” He built a series of websites, complete with videos and detailed images, explaining how to identify sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rocks and minerals. Brande also noticed academic colleagues using high-end cameras and software to document their rock collections in 3D models and started working on that, too.


Above: take one of Brande's 3D models — in this case, of a sedimentary rock sample — for a spin. Use your mouse or finger to get a 360-degree look at the sample.



He gave a series of talks at summer meetings of geoscience educators “and I learned there was a great deal of interest in having an archive of 3D models that other teachers could use,” Brande said.

“My thought was, students can probably learn 90% of what they need this way,” he added. That was a ballpark estimate, of course. But with a new $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, however, Brande and collaborator Robert Nosofsky, Ph.D., a noted researcher of human learning at Indiana University, aim to quantify the differences more exactly. “To what degree can you learn on a screen with 3D models compared to using the physical samples — and what’s the brain doing when it’s learning on a screen instead of actually picking up a rock and feeling the weight, etc?” Brande said, summarizing their principal research questions.

Above: Brande’s online geology sites are experiencing a surge of interest as universities move to remote instruction. Their free resources for geology instruction include detailed images and videos in which he performs common tests used to categorize rocks and minerals.


Brande’s rock samples are just examples, meant to teach students principles that apply to identify any rock of the same type, he said. “This is what’s known as category learning. If I ask you to tell me what you know about granite, you have an abstract set of ideas in your mind — properties, characteristics — but you don’t have a real rock in your head.” The goal of his teaching, Brande explained, “is to help students assemble a true set of abstract concepts that can be applied to a physical thing that they have never seen before — so if I hand them a rock, they can tell me it’s granite, for example.”

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Nosofksy developed an influential paradigm, exemplar theory, to explain how students learn — keeping multiple examples of a category in their heads which they use to decide if newly presented samples belong to that category. In a series of experiments, Nosofsky and colleagues have challenged undergraduates at Indiana University to categorize hundreds of (two-dimensional) pictures of rocks.

rep brande home studio 1000pxBrande films his videos and creates 3D models in his home studio with his smartphone. One of the few equipment purchases with his new NSF grant will be a DSLR camera.

The NSF grant will extend this work to Brande’s 3D models. “Testing 3D models engages a different set of brain circuits and is more true to life to the physical sample,” Brande said. The COVID–19 pandemic has temporarily taken away the option of comparing digital learning to in-person, “live” instruction. “I don’t have any face-to-face students at the moment, but I always have the 3D models online,” Brande said. “Rob is now developing a series of experiments to test how students learn in the online environment only.” Depending on results, Brande said, “this could be a game-changer in the transformation of how students can learn online with these sorts of artifacts.”

"I’ve got students online now who work in essential industries and sometimes can’t make class sessions. They need these resources to keep up."

Meanwhile, Brande’s online geology sites are experiencing a surge of interest as universities move to remote instruction. Their free resources for geology instruction include detailed images and videos in which he performs common tests used to categorize rocks and minerals. As the coronavirus pandemic moved across the world, he started to see a spike in traffic from locations around the globe. The site’s analytics show visits from across the United States, as well as Australia and New Zealand, a large swath of Europe and several countries in South America and Africa.

Brande has also received grateful emails from fellow faculty members teaching at institutions in Florida, California, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania — and as far away as the University of Vigo in Spain.

“To what degree can you learn on a screen with 3D models compared to using the physical samples — and what’s the brain doing when it’s learning on a screen instead of actually picking up a rock and feeling the weight, etc.?”

“I got started in all of this not to do research but because I felt there was a need for my students and I’m a techie at heart,” Brande said. “More and more students are working 40 hours a week and caring for family members. I’ve got students online now who work in essential industries and sometimes can’t make class sessions. They need these resources to keep up. And think how much better it will be when they are all 3D models. Some of my rocks are only an inch and a half long. Students can see more on the 3D models than they could ever see with the naked eye.”

Collaborators on Brande’s NSF grant include faculty teaching under-served populations at institutions in Texas and California. His previous web work was designed specifically for students on laptops, Brande said. “All my students have laptops; that’s not the case for their students. But they all have cellphones. We’re going to make this deliverable to anything you can get a web page on.”