NAGT > Teaching Resources > Teaching in the Field > Field Trip Examples > Digital Field Mapping in Western Ireland

Digital Field Mapping in Western Ireland

Steven J. Whitmeyer and L. Scott Eaton, James Madison University, Dept. of Geology and Environmental Science

Intended Audience: Upper-division undergraduate geoscience students


Finny, County Mayo, Ireland

Student's digital geologic map draped over a 3D orthophoto of the Finny area.

Daily Itinerary

The entire field component of this exercise takes place at the field site near Finny, County Mayo, Ireland.

Suggestions for Modification

The content of these exercises can easily be modified and/or shortened to fit an alternate audience, such as Earth Science teachers.


The James Madison University Geology Field Course in Ireland introduces digital field mapping after providing a solid foundation in traditional paper-based bedrock and surficial mapping. In the digital component of the course, students begin by learning the technical aspects and capabilities of hand-held field computers and then set up GIS data files. Field data collection using ArcPad software includes lithologic information, structural orientations, contacts, faults, and other relevant point and line data. Partnership with the National University of Ireland, Galway provides students with a state-of-the-art GIS laboratory where they download their field data. Following an introduction to ArcGIS software, students use and interpret their digital data to prepare a professional-quality geologic map of the field area. An additional component of the exercise allows students to render their data within a 3D model. They can drape their GIS-based geologic maps over a rotatable digital elevation model of the field area superimposed with high-resolution orthophotos. Distinctive topographic features, such as lineations that might have resulted from faults or contacts, often can be matched to the student's field data to better constrain map interpretations.

This field- and laboratory-based mapping and visualization exercise familiarizes students with new tools that can aid in the interpretation of field geology and provides an example of how digital technologies are revolutionizing traditional field methods. Initial assessment suggests strong student support for this approach to GIS-based integration of field data collection, map preparation and 3D visualization and interpretation.

Student participants involved in gathering field data for the mapping project.


This field experience is a 3 day sequence which is part of a month-long field camp in Ireland. Students are assumed to have a geoscience background typical for 3rd and 4th year undergraduates. Background coursework usually includes Physical & Historical Geology, Mineralogy, Stratigraphy, Structural Geology and Geomorphology. However, we assume that all students are lacking in one or more areas of background knowledge and provide appropriate remedial instruction.


The goals of this exercise are:
  1. to expose students to the value and applications of GIS as applied to geology, and
  2. to familiarize students with modern techniques of geologic mapping using hand-held field computers and GIS software.


The course is designed to instruct students through 3 days of intensive field mapping, followed by 2 days in a state-of-the-art GIS laboratory. Students collect record their data digitally in real time in the field, and then use their field data to construct a professional quality geologic map of their field area. Evaluation of field data and geologic interpretations is enhanced by computer visualizations based on digital 3D terrain models. The final map product is impressive in presentation and is directly based on the student's field data.

Notes and Tips:

Access to field sites is not a big problem in western Ireland. However, it is common courtesy to talk to landowners and (sheep) farmers prior to bringing a large group onto their property. Consultation with local geoscience professionals at the National University of Ireland, Galway is also advised.

Assessment and Evaluation:

Students are given an initial pre-test at the beginning of the field course to evaluate their geologic background and knowledge. Prior GIS experience is also assessed, but not assumed. Subsequent assessment is conducted at the end of the digital component of the course in order to assess how well students have assimilated new knowledge of the field geology and digital mapping techniques. Students are also queried for their impressions of the effectiveness and relevance of the exercise, and whether they have interest in learning more about geologic applications of GIS.

Materials and Handouts:

Field handout for digital mapping (Acrobat (PDF) 523kB Jan24 07)

Lab handout for digital mapping (Acrobat (PDF) 1.2MB Jan24 07)

Map showing the Field Area near Finny, County Mayo, Ireland.

GSA poster describing digital exercise: DIGITAL MAPPING AND 3D VISUALIZATION IN A GEOLOGY SUMMER FIELD COURSE (PowerPoint 6MB Jan24 07)


Example of a final GIS map that students produce.

Cliff, P.D. and Ryan, P.D. 1994. Geochemical evolution of an Ordovician island arc, South Mayo, Ireland. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 151, 329-342.

Harris, M.J., Whitmeyer, S., Kelly, S., Whitmeyer, S.J., Feely, M., and Eaton, L.S. 2006. Digital mapping and 3D visualization in a geology summer field course. GSA Abstracts with Programs, v. 38.

Johnston, S., Whitmeyer, S.J., and De Paor, D. 2005. New developments in digital mapping and visualization as part of a capstone field geology course. GSA Abstracts with Programs, v.37, p.145.

Ryan, P.D. and Dewey, J.F. 1991. A geological and tectonic cross-section of the Caledonides of western Ireland. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 148, 173-180.

Williams, D.M. and Harper, D.A.T. 1991. End-Silurian modification of Ordovician terranes in western Ireland. Journal of the Geological Society, London, 148, 165-171.

JMU Ireland Field Course website: