Initial Publication Date: July 15, 2019

Flyover Country: Creating Flexible Field Experiences Using a Mobile Geoscience App

By David M. Birlenbach, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN; Avery Cook Shinneman, University of Washington-Bothell, Bothell, WA; Shane Loeffler, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN; and Amy Myrbo, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN


Field experiences are an integral and formative part of undergraduate education in the geosciences (Petcovic et al., 2014; Wilson, 2017). However, many students have obligations that restrict their availability to attend instructor-led field trips outside of scheduled class time. These constraints on students' time, including family care, paid work, and contributions to family businesses, tend to be more limiting for underrepresented, low-income, and firstgeneration students (Warburton et al., 2001), presenting a barrier to early exposure field experiences that may lead them into the geosciences and encourage them to persist into higher level coursework (Levine et al., 2007; Wolfe, 2018). Mobile apps can be used to overcome barriers by facilitating self-guided field trips, which give students the flexibility to take field trips on their own schedules. Flyover Country is a free National Science Foundation-funded mobile app developed at the University of Minnesota that provides users with the ability to access numerous geoscience databases (e.g., Macrostrat geologic map database, Paleobiology Database, Neotoma Paleoecology Database, Open Core Data), Wikipedia articles, and field trip guides along a selected path anywhere in the world. Instructors can use published field guides stored in the app as well as upload novel guides for students to download so that they can lead themselves on field trips. This functionality was demonstrated at Earth Educator Rendezvous field trips in 2017 and 2018.

Flyover Country fills a niche where organized field trips are difficult due to student or instructor limitations on time, transportation, etc. While virtual field trips are often used to fill this need and can offer rigorous and engaging experiences (Tuthill and Klemm, 2002), self-guided, Flyover Country-facilitated field trips differ as students still visit sites in person. Since students are physically present at sites, instructors may ask students to collect samples (such as sediment), compare samples from different locations, or have other hands-on experiences not available on virtual trips (Hurst, 1998; Arrowsmith et al., 2005). Additionally, students using the app for self-guided field trips report serendipitous positive experiences learning about their local areas and seeing wildlife and other natural phenomena.

Instructor Uses

Instructors interested in using an uploaded field guide can explore existing trips in the "field trips" tab of the app (see photo at right). Alternatively, instructors who wish to enter a field guide for their own local area can go to, create an account, and follow instructions for uploading content. Through the field trip content submission portal, users can upload field trip stops as geolocated points, lines, or polygons, as GPS coordinates, or using an interactive map interface. Instructors can also add text, images, and figures associated with each location or field trip stop and provide questions for the student to answer at each stop. Users then submit their field trip guides for editorial approval by the Flyover Country team to ensure the uploaded content is appropriate before they are made available in the open field trip guide database maintained by Flyover Country. Uploading a field trip makes it publicly accessible to everyone using the app and preserves it digitally for future students and enthusiasts to discover; field guides uploaded to the database are also accessible to through

Student Uses

Students select a field trip guide by loading a path using two or more points on the map interface, by entering a destination, or from a list of guides. A selected field guide expands to show the guide's stops on the map, layered with information from various geoscience databases. Text and images associated with stops are displayed as part of a pull-up menu from the base of the interface. Flyover Country uses the phone's built-in GPS, allowing students to independently lead themselves through the geolocated stops. As cellular data and wireless Internet connections are not always available, the included geoscience data and field trips can be saved for offline use.

Our Experience

Flyover Country-facilitated field trips were implemented at the University of Washington–Bothell for introductory geology classes beginning in Spring 2017. Course field trips include a tour of downtown building stones and glacial landscapes within nearby public parks. Students are given the option of attending a typical weekend field trip with the instructor or taking the same trip on their own time through the app. Most students who used Flyover Country reported that time conflicts (e.g., work schedules, extracurricular activities, family responsibilities) were the primary reason they chose to take the independent Flyover Country trip rather than attending in person.

Using surveys and comparison of field trip lab scores, we find no apparent difference in lab scores between independent and instructor-led trips. Additionally, post-lab surveys included an open writing section to detail what the students thought was "the most interesting, useful, or enjoyable" part of the experience. The majority of students in both the in-person and app-based groups described additional beneficial outcomes that were not directly content based, such as being outside, seeing things from a new perspective, and visiting nearby locations they had not experienced before. Utilizing Flyover Country in the course curriculum provided students with field experiences that institutional or personal barriers might have otherwise prevented.

In addition to facilitating independent field trips, Flyover Country is used to supplement supervised field experiences. The University of Minnesota Department of Earth Sciences used the app on undergraduate week-long field trips as well as in a hydrogeology course field trip in 2017. During these trips, students travel to geologically interesting areas but limitations on time restrict the number of possible stops. Using Flyover Country, students learn more about the area by selecting and reading about nearby points of interest that are visible during the trip but are not designated stops. Incorporating these points of interest provides students with additional information and a broader context for the region through which they are traveling. This same method of viewing surface geology remotely using geologic maps and satellite imagery coupled with selecting sites for further reading can be used for self-guided virtual field trips which could serve as alternative opportunities for schools or students that would otherwise be unable to visit field localities in person, and can increase access for students who would benefit from written as well as spoken information at field trip stops.

Flyover Country links together GPS, field guides, and open geoscience databases into an offline handheld platform which provides students with the opportunity to independently navigate field experiences. This technology enhances instructor-led field trips and enables students to overcome barriers and participate in a crucial aspect of geoscience education, seeing geology in the field.


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