Geoscience Horizons

Press Release

University of Michigan

Oct. 31, 2003

Nancy Ross-Flanigan
(734) 647-1853

GeoPad: A 21st century tool for field education

EDITORS: For a downloadable image of students using GeoPad and traditional mapping methods, visit

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Notebook, rock hammer, compass, clipboard, topographic maps and aerial photographs---these are the tools that generations of geology students have used to learn the science and hone their mapping and observation skills in the field.

Now add GeoPad, a mobile computer application developed at the University of Michigan to enhance field education.

Combining newly available TabletPC computers designed to withstand outdoor conditions, integrated Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) receivers, digital datasets, Geographic Information System (GIS) software and 3-D visualization software, the GeoPad allows students to record, manipulate, integrate and view their observations and mapping data in ways that never were possible with traditional paper-based methods.

The young scientists can do it all while perched on rocky ledges in the field, as use of the GeoPad over the past summer showed. The units, which weigh about 4 pounds, are worn in shoulder harnesses, something like the slings used for carrying babies. As students hike and scramble over rocks, the GeoPads can be flipped up and secured against their chests; when it's time to check maps or enter data, the students simply flip them back down. In the open position, the harness straps suspend the computer tablets at waist level, making it easy for users to enter commands and information with a special pen. Users can even add field notes and sketches, using digital ink technology.

During a seven-week summer field geology course at U-M's Camp Davis near Jackson, Wyo., students used GeoPads for their final mapping projects. "The old-fashioned way was to go out with a solid surface on which you can mount maps," said Peter Knoop, U-M School of Information research investigator and geological sciences doctoral candidate.

"Students would get aerial photos of the area and, printed on transparency paper, a topographic map that they could lay on top of the aerial photo. On top of that, they'd have a piece of Mylar that they could write on," he said. "With the GeoPad, we're doing the digital equivalent of that, but with much better and more complete ability to manipulate the information and images." For example, students can rotate the maps to get different views and switch from 2-D to 3-D representations of whatever they're looking at in the real world.

That's a big advantage in helping students understand how a 2-D map corresponds to the 3-D landscape and its representation on a 2-D map, a skill that many find difficult to master, said Ben van der Pluijm, U-M professor of geological sciences. Students can also incorporate other information for the area, such as soil characteristics, vegetation patterns or land-use data. "By providing more information than we could give them in the field in the past, we're significantly adding to the learning experience rather than just replacing the old fashioned way of doing it," said van der Pluijm.

GeoPads can also enhance the educational value of field trips, added van der Pluijm. In addition to maps, the units can be loaded with images, such as slides showing the microscopic structure of rocks that students are likely to encounter or information on landforms they pass en route to field stops.

Knoop and van der Pluijm are experimenting with the use of wireless technology, so that an instructor in one van can point out and comment on interesting features, and passengers in other vans can follow along on their GeoPads. Adding digital cameras and using voice recognition software will make the GeoPad even more useful, said Knoop, and the system can easily be adapted for field research and instruction in biology, anthropology and other areas of science and education outside the classroom.

Knoop and van der Pluijm will discuss and demonstrate GeoPad at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Seattle Nov. 2-5.

Support for the GeoPad project came from the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, Department of Geological Sciences and Global Change Program; the Microsoft Corporation; the University of Illinois at Chicago; the University of Minnesota; and the U.S. Geological Survey's EROS Data Center.


TECHNICAL DETAILS: The GeoPad integrates ruggedized Windows XP-based TabletPC systems (iX104 from Xplore Technologies), small global positioning satellite receivers (Earthmate USB from DeLorme), modern geographic information system software (ArcGIS from ESRI) and 3-D visualization software developed through the GeoWall initiative (

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