- Associated Press - Saturday, November 1, 2014

RADFORD, Va. (AP) - Parv Sethi is a firm believer in the power of field trips.

This fall, the Radford University professor is providing his students with the opportunity to take guided geology-based tours in 15 national parks, all without having to spend more than $40 or get out of their pajamas.

Sethi, 47, has spent much of the past five years ensuring such affordable and convenient experiences exist by combining his passions for geology and photography to create series of virtual field trips, which are currently being used by 40 universities in the United States.

Sethi said he hopes the product mirrors what he believes to be a critical aspect of the educational experience.

“For the past 20 years of teaching Geology 100 classes, I’ve discovered the common theme that seems to run through different people that are into geology is that they went on a field trip,” Sethi said.

“This is an opportunity to rekindle that spark, like children tend to have.”

Sethi, who has been at Radford since 1996, left his native India at age 17 to pursue a master’s degree from the University of Brussels in Belgium. By the time he was 24, he had earned a doctorate from North Carolina State University.

He said he developed a passion for finding a new way to reach students when he took his first teaching position at as an assistant professor at Northeastern Illinois University.

“I went from the lab to facing an auditorium of 400 students in Chicago,” Sethi said. “I felt so inadequate because I just had not had any formal training in that.”

To cope, he began researching methods by which to communicate content to students with a wide range of learning styles, as well as experimenting with a variety of technology.

In 2008, he successfully pitched the idea of using his newfound knowledge to create a series of online virtual field trips to Brooks/Cole Publishing, which now is under the Cengage Learning brand.

“My goal was to create something that uses the latest instructional technology and combine it with my skills as a photographer and geology professor,” Sethi said.

Cengage Learning has an annual revenue of about $1.5 billion with operations in 20 countries. It produces the second largest number of higher education textbooks in the United States, according to an email from the company’s public relations department.

Cengage Product Develop Manager Alex Brady worked as the editor for Sethi’s project and said his concept was far more intense than the typical slideshow and text virtual field trips to which they were accustomed.

“It was the kind of thing we’d been dreaming about,” she said.

Sethi said he believed his skill set would enable him to create something better than anything that existed in the field prior.

“I can take that list of creative learning points when I’m in the field and allow my photographic eye to be influenced by the list of topics I feel need to be addressed better,” he said.

He sent surveys to 100 geology professors around the country, asking them, “If money was no option, where would you take your students in the U.S. to study geological concepts?”

Taking the top 15 locations provided, Sethi spent his next three summers photographing and recording data from locations such as the Grand Canyon and the San Andreas Fault.

He was able to capture footage of a glacier in Alaska and lava flowing into the ocean in Hawaii.

“I took that footage pretty much putting my life at risk,” Sethi said.

He digitized his findings and designed each of the thousands of screens that encompass the field trips, he said.

His work resulted in the 15 virtual field trips being published, which Radford sophomore Marshall Holland said take about 45 minutes to complete.

Holland, who has seen those same Hawaiian volcanoes in person, said the virtual experience was a very good representation and the field trips overall had helped him understand the concepts taught in class.

“It’s easier to visualize how everything comes together when you look at a picture of a volcano or a fault or a mid-Atlantic ridge. It kind of helps you bring together the concepts instead of just looking at a PowerPoint (presentation,) Holland said.

Unlike Holland, freshman Grayson Glueck said she’d never been to any of the national parks and enjoyed the effortless nature of being able to “visit” them through Sethi’s work.

“The virtual field trips are cool because if feels like you’re traveling everywhere, but you don’t actually have to do anywhere. It’s cool you just click through them and, ‘Oh, well there’s everything,’” she said.

Sethi said the most common feedback he’d received from students was how much they enjoy the free roaming 360-degree panorama portion of the trips, which allows them to explore areas on their own.

Junior Jessica Astacio, who said she took the class because of her passion for geology, agreed.

“It’s amazing because it’s like you can go to all the places that you’ve always kind of dreamed of going to … you feel like you’re actually there,” she said.

Brady said Cengage Learning had also been very pleased with the feedback from the anonymous surveys it had given students across the country.

“A lot consider making geology a part of their degree after using the program,” she said.

Such reactions are the precise reason the professor wanted to provide students the experience in the first place.

“They think they’re playing, but I know they’re not just playing, they’re learning,” Sethi said.

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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