Sojourn to technological innovator engages RU geology professor


Parvinder Sethi, at the Gigapan headquaters

For Parvinder Sethi, applying emergent technology to teaching is as much a joy as the landscape that makes up the world's geology.

The RU Professor of Geology had a unique opportunity to meet with the engineers who developed the technology used by NASA on its Curiosity 2 expedition to photograph the Martian landscape. During his week-long visit with GigaPan, makers of ultra-high-resolution imagery systems, he shared his experience from using their technology and his view of its potential.

At the company's factory and research facility in Portland, Oregon, Sethi, who has produced two multi-media products for teaching geology, worked in the field and the conference room with the team to enhance the educator's end user experience.

"The tour of their operations facility allowed for two important things to happen in my mind as an end-user - first, it demystified the whole black robotic box aspect of the hardware," he said. "Second, it allowed me to understand the mechanics of the hardware from the inside to the outside, rather than just the outside - both of which will hopefully allow me to create better geological imagery for my students at RU."

He described his time at GigaPan as "an open dialogue." He said they were eager to hear more about the potential Sethi sees for using their technology to help students discover the process of scientific discovery in a powerful, visual way.

"They were completely absorbed in what I had to share and they asked when I would need their solutions," he said.

Along with his faculty colleagues in the department of geology, Sethi is developing a project using GigaPan imagery to create a series of virtual field trips for RU students to national parks and local, regional and state parks of geologic interest. This summer, that effort will take preliminary steps forward as Sethi and Geology Department Chair Jonathon Tso will scan, or photograph in minute detail, a section of local roadside that exposes a rich example of geologic activity.


GigaPan technology will allow researchers in the field to record their surroundings in great detail.

"This technology can do for exploring the horizontal dimension what Google Maps does for exploring the vertical dimension," he said. He likened its detail to standing on Heth Hall and being able to see the details of a single brick on the façade of Muse Hall. The opportunity to enable students to do more free will exploration of hard-to-access terrain is thrilling for Sethi, who has hiked miles in his exploration of the geologic world.

The challenge of incorporating the power of the technology as a tool to teach science dovetails with Sethi's diverse geologic research interests. His enthusiasm for geology and educational technology merged in two interactive, multimedia CD-ROMs for teaching introductory-level physical geology and mineralogy. Sethi has authored the college-level "Virtual Field Trips in Geology," an electronic resource from Brooks and Cole, that surveys 15 National Parks from a geologic perspective. With RU Professor of Geology Robert Whisonant and others, he co-authored a popular four CD-ROM set called, "Geology of Virginia," for use in elementary schools.

"I guess I am a push-the-envelope type with technology," he said. "This was the chance for me as an educator to help the engineers understand how we can use it to make the world accessible to students in many disciplines."

Watching the high resolution images of the Martian landscape that came back to Earth from Curiosity 2 got him pondering, "Can we apply that same technology to studying the geological landscape here on earth?" and "Could my technology experience and pedagogical experience provide course materials for a class that addresses multiple student intelligences and learning styles?"

For a week in Portland with the engineers of GigaPan, he was buoyed anew by positive answers to those questions. For 20 years as a faculty member at RU, Sethi has benefitted from a university that is positive about curiosity and zeal for improved teaching and learning.

"That is why I love Radford so much," he said.

May 29, 2014