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Students with physical disabilities encounter challenges in any scientific discipline, yet the geosciences have extremely low participation levels for persons with disabilities. Because of the emphasis placed on field research at the undergraduate level, persons with mobility impairments face limited opportunities for progressing in the geosciences. One strategy to address this is the application of adaptive technologies, such as virtual field trips (VFTs), as a supplement to traditional field instruction. A common goal of VFTs and other adaptive technologies is to promote equal access to undergraduate geoscience curricula for physically impaired students. If the scientific talents of these students are embraced and accommodated, regardless of their physical ability, the overall welfare of the geosciences as a discipline is enhanced.

This paper describes ongoing research into the development of one specific VFT: an electronic re-creation of Mammoth Cave National Park for the Introduction to Cave and Karst Systems field course at a Midwestern research university. This paper focuses on the theoretical processes necessary to conduct qualitative inquiry for the purpose of developing an accessible, alternative field-based learning environment. Grounded theory and critical theory are contrasted as two possible guiding frameworks. Three roles for the researcher are compared: researcher-as-observer, participant-researcher, and action-researcher. Phenomenology is discussed as the preferred methodological choice for this research, and attendant methods are described. Finally, a discussion of validity and reliability issues is provided. This paper is intended to serve as a guide for future researchers embarking on qualitative studies similar to this one.

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