Harrisburg leads open educational resources innovation in geology courses

Instructor points at 3D rock on student's computer

Jennifer Sliko, assistant teaching professor of earth and geosciences at the Harrisburg campus, points out how the 3D rocks can be identified by individual mineral grains.

Credit: Daniel Poeschl/Penn State Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Open educational resources (OER) are transforming the landscape of higher education, allowing for more accessible and affordable learning. At Penn State Harrisburg, geology students are using digital rock kits and an open-access textbook in place of traditional rock packages and text, a change that has fueled student engagement. 

Through a partnership between Penn State Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) and the Penn State University Libraries, the ACT@PSU program revolutionizes faculty use of the traditional textbook. ACT@PSU supports instructors who want to teach courses through OER. With the assistance of Julie Lang, OER coordinator for TLT, and Dan Poeschl, multimedia specialist for the Center for Teaching Excellence at Penn State Harrisburg, the transformation of geology classes at the Harrisburg campus began in fall 2018. 

“When the center purchased the Agisoft PhotoScan software, we created 3D rocks to replace the rock kit ultimately,” said Jennifer Sliko, assistant teaching professor of earth and geosciences at the Harrisburg campus. “In the future, we will have the rock kit as a recommended but not required resource.”

Poeschl photographed rocks from the traditional kit then uploaded them into the software to create 3D models accessible through SketchFab, where people can share 3D models just like they would YouTube videos.

“The software’s primary function is to scan and create 3D models of real-life objects quickly," said Poeschl. "Its most popular use is by game designers. They can quickly and efficiently populate an open-world video game without painstakingly creating a bunch of custom objects.”

By the project’s end, Poeschl had created 43 models. Some reflective, transparent rocks like quartz didn’t translate well in the 3D space, but there will be alternative ways Sliko can teach with these rocks in a digital realm.

Initially, Sliko sought out an online replacement for the rock kit to solve the issue of academic integrity. Each year, the campus bookstore bought back the kits from students, and students could pass on the identification of each rock to the next class.

With the 3D rocks, Sliko can change the labeling each year.

“In 2018, ‘Rock A’ might be granite, but in 2019, ‘Rock A’ will be a completely different rock specimen. It reduces the burden of the textbook purchase and minimizes cheating from semester to semester.”

Affordability also plays a significant role in switching to OER. By fall 2019, Sliko plans to have her course become completely OER-based. Physical rock kits are costly, with not many used options available. Students in Sliko’s course now have an online textbook they use to reference for rock identification.

Student engagement has significantly increased over previous semesters. Students are researching online and engaging more with their classmates to identify the rocks.

In the 3D space, students can zoom in and out on the rocks and easily manipulate and identify them based on color and individual mineral grains. The effect is the same as though the students were looking at the stones through a hand lens. Plans for improvement include digital representations of other methods to test rocks and minerals, such as reactions to acids and magnets.

The advantages of using digital rock kits and an open-access textbook will extend far beyond the Harrisburg campus. Other instructors can use these models for their online classes as well.

Sliko said, “Having that innovative technology as we move forward becomes more crucial because the students expect it. In online classes, it's a nice way to enwrap their attention.”