Virtual reality helps environmental education

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Say the words “ocean acidification” in mixed company and you will likely get blank stares. Although climate change has steadily increased in public awareness, one of its most insidious impacts – a widespread disappearance of marine ecosystems due to carbon dioxide emissions – remains relatively unknown.

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Ian Fitzgerald and Rob Jordan

Researchers at Stanford and the University of Oregon have found that virtual reality can be a powerful tool for improving environmental learning outcomes and attitudes.

Step into virtual reality. In a new study, published on November 30 in Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from Stanford and the University of Oregon have found that virtual reality can be a powerful tool for improving environmental learning outcomes and attitudes. The researchers found that experimenting with simulating the effects of ocean acidification spurred significant gains in people’s understanding of the problem.

“I believe virtual reality is a powerful tool that can help the environment in so many ways,” said the study co-author. Jeremy Bailenson, communication professor Thomas More Storke. “Changing the right minds can have a huge impact. “

New equipment, wider reach

With the advent of affordable consumer grade gear from companies like Oculus Rift, Samsung, and Microsoft, potential audiences for virtual reality extend well beyond Stanford’s millions of dollars. Virtual human interaction laboratory.

Work with the co-author Peas Roy, Professor of Education David Jacks and Director of Stanford’s Institute of Advanced Research Human Sciences and Technologies, Bailenson and his team have Stanford Ocean Acidification Experiment to more than 270 high school students, college students and adults.

In one of those tests, high school students in a marine biology class at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, Calif., Adopted new virtual identities in the simulation (which is free to download). Each has become a pink coral on a rocky underwater reef throbbing with sea urchins, breams, snails and other creatures.

By the end of the simulation – which quickly brings us back to what the reef will look like at the end of this century – these brilliantly varied and colorful species are gone. They are replaced by slimy green algae and silvery Salema Porgy – a fish that will likely thrive in more acidic waters. The simulation is based on the work of Fiorenza Micheli, Professor David and Lucile Packard of Marine Sciences at Stanford.

Eventually, the viewer’s virtual coral skeleton disintegrates. “If the acidification of the oceans continues, ecosystems like your rocky reef, a world once rich in biodiversity, will become a world of weeds,” the story goes on.

Connected to the environment

The simulation was effective in making users feel a connection with their bodies, according to researchers who followed the movements of the students. Some students rotated their heads and twisted their bodies during the simulation.

Elise Ogle, researcher at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, experiments with Stanford’s ocean acidification experiment, with coral animation always in the background. (Image credit: Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab)

“It’s pretty cool, pretty responsive,” said Cameron Chapman, 18. “I really felt like I was underwater. “

“It was way more realistic than I expected,” said Alexa Levison, another high school student. “I am a visual learner. Watching ocean acidification happen is different from just hearing about it. “

After the experiment, the Sacred Heart students’ scores on questions about the causes and mechanisms of ocean acidification increased by almost 150% and they retained this knowledge when tested several weeks later. . Across all of the study’s school experiences, participants demonstrated increasing knowledge of ocean acidification as their time in the VR learning environment grew.

“Across all age groups, learning settings and learning content, people understand the processes and effects of ocean acidification after a short immersive virtual reality experience,” the author said. Principal of the study, David Markowitz, graduate student at the time of the research, now an assistant professor at the University of Oregon.

“We don’t know if a virtual reality experience results in more learning compared to the same materials presented in other media,” Bailenson said. “What we do know is that it increases motivation – people are excited to do it, much more than opening a textbook – and because of the wealth of data recorded by the virtual reality system, you can tweak real-time learning material based on how someone is learning.

Bailenson takes his virtual reality experience beyond the classroom. He sent researchers with VR headsets to flea markets and libraries to show the experience of ocean acidification. It is part of a permanent virtual reality exhibit at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. Bailenson is also working with companies to integrate environmentally-themed virtual reality into video games.

Although Bailenson is increasingly confident in the generalization of the work, he recognizes the need for replications to test its robustness and determine how long the effects last. Questions remain about the effects of repeated exposure to virtual reality and their persistence over time. The research has yet to incorporate a large demographic sample covering variables such as age, income and education.

Despite these unknowns, co-author Brian Perone, a graduate student at the time of the research, was optimistic about the value of virtual reality in education. “When done right, these experiences can feel real and can give learners a lasting sense of connection,” he said.

Bailenson is also a principal investigator at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Micheli is also co-director of Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and a principal investigator at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Co-authors also include Rob Laha, postdoctoral fellow at the time of the research.

Funding for this research was provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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