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Researchers at Stanford and the University of Oregon are using virtual reality to teach students about ocean acidification. Preliminary results of the experiment are promising.

Climate Change

Virtual Reality Helps Students Understand The Reality Of Ocean Acidification

Researchers at Stanford and the University of Oregon are using virtual reality to teach students about ocean acidification. Preliminary results of the experiment are promising.

Virtual reality can be so much more than another device that lets young males carve each other up in interesting new ways in combat-themed video games. Researchers at Stanford and the University of Oregon have created a VR presentation they call the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience and presented it to nearly 300 high school and college students. Participants see themselves as part of a living coral reef and watch as it deteriorates to become a lifeless ecosystem infested with weeds.

virtual reality ocean acidification

Credit: Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

“I believe virtual reality is a powerful tool that can help the environment in so many ways,” says Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communications at Stanford and co-author of a study detailing the reaction people had to the immersive VR experience. The study was published November 30 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. “Changing the right minds can have a huge impact,” he says.

In one test, high school seniors in a marine biology class at Sacred Heart Preparatory school in Atherton, California, participated in the VR presentation. At the beginning, the coral reef is a bright pink color and alive with marine life, including sea urchins, bream, and snails. By the end of the presentation — which fast-forwards to what the reef will look like at the end of this century — those brilliantly varied and colorful species have disappeared. They are replaced by slimy green algae and the silver Salema Porgy — a fish that will likely thrive in more acidic waters. The simulation is based on the work of Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of marine science at Stanford.

“It’s pretty cool, pretty responsive,” said 18-year-old Cameron Chapman. “I definitely felt like I was underwater.” Alexa Levison, a senior, said “It was way more realistic than I expected. I’m a visual learner. Seeing ocean acidification happen is different than just hearing about it.”

In testing conducted afterward, the students’ score on questions about ocean acidification improved dramatically. Follow up testing showed they retained what they had learned for several weeks after the experience. “Across age groups, learning settings, and learning content, people understand the processes and effect of ocean acidification after a short immersive VR experience,” said study lead author David Markowitz, a graduate student at the time of the research who is now an assistant professor at the University of Oregon.

“We don’t know whether a VR 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 thrilled to do it, much more so than opening a textbook — and because of the richness of the data recorded by the VR system, you can tweak the learning materials in real time based on how well someone is learning.”

Bailenson is bringing the VR experience to audiences of non-students at local flea markets and libraries. It is now available to anyone who visits the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California. He is also collaborating with companies to incorporate environment-themed VR into video games, according to a report by Science Daily.

Bailenson acknowledges that more clinical research is needed to demonstrate that the VR immersion technique promotes long term learning. Questions remain about the effects of repeated VR exposure and how they persist over time. Research has yet to incorporate a broad demographic sample that spans variables such as age, income and education. Despite such concerns, co-author Brian Perone, a graduate student at the time of the research, says he is optimistic about the value of VR in education. “When done right, these experiences can feel real, and can give learners a lasting sense of connectedness.”

Clearly, virtual reality could be an important new tool in helping people understand more about the threats posed to the Earth and the creatures who live on it by warming global temperatures. It could be useful in overcoming some of the willful ignorance about climate change peddled by fossil fuel companies and the reactionary institutions funded by them.

We don’t generally get cool videos that accompany scientific research but this one is a dandy.

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Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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