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Virtual reality connects students to reef die-offs

(Credit: nanpalmero/Flickr)

Experiencing a simulation of the effects of ocean acidification spurred meaningful gains in people’s understanding of the issue, research shows.

Utter the words “ocean acidification” in mixed company, and you’ll probably get blank stares. Although climate change has grown steadily in the public consciousness, one of its most insidious impacts—a widespread die-off of marine ecosystems driven by carbon dioxide emissions—remains relatively unknown.

“I believe virtual reality is a powerful tool that can help the environment in so many ways,” says study coauthor Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of communication at Stanford University. “Changing the right minds can have a huge impact.”

New educational possibilities

With the advent of affordable consumer-grade gear from companies such as Oculus Rift, Samsung, and Microsoft, potential audiences for VR are expanding.

Working with coauthor Roy Pea, professor of education and director of Stanford University’s Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, Bailenson and his team brought the Ocean Acidification Experience to more than 270 high school students, college students, and adults.

In one such test, high school seniors in a marine biology class at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton, California took on new virtual identities in the simulation (which is free to download). Each became a pink coral on a rocky underwater reef throbbing with urchins, bream, snails and other creatures.

“I’m a visual learner. Seeing ocean acidification happen is different than just hearing about it.”

By the end of the simulation—which fast-forwards to what the reef will look like at the end of this century—those brilliantly varied and colorful species have disappeared. Slimy green algae and the silver Salema Porgy—a fish that will likely thrive in more acidic waters—replace them. The simulation is based on the work of Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of marine science.

Eventually, the viewer’s virtual coral skeleton disintegrates. “If ocean acidification continues, ecosystems like your rocky reef, a world that was once full of biological diversity, will become a world of weeds,” the narration intones.

Deep-dive learning

The simulation was effective at making users feel a connection with their bodies, according to researchers who tracked the students’ movements. Some of the students swiveled their heads and twisted their bodies during the simulation.

“It’s pretty cool, pretty responsive,” says 18-year-old Cameron Chapman. “I definitely felt like I was underwater.”

“It was way more realistic than I expected,” says fellow high school senior Alexa Levison. “I’m a visual learner. Seeing ocean acidification happen is different than just hearing about it.”

After the experience, the Sacred Heart students’ scores on questions about ocean acidification causes and mechanisms increased by almost 150 percent and they retained that knowledge when tested several weeks later. In all of the study’s in-school experiments, participants demonstrated increasing knowledge about ocean acidification as their time in the VR learning environment grew longer.

“Across age groups, learning settings, and learning content, people understand the processes and effect of ocean acidification after a short immersive VR experience,” says 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 says. “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.”

How long does the effect last?

Bailenson is taking his VR experience beyond the classroom. He has been sending researchers with VR headsets to flea markets and libraries to show the ocean acidification experience. It is part of a permanent virtual reality exhibition at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose. Bailenson is also collaborating with companies to incorporate environment-themed VR into video games.

Although Bailenson is becoming more confident about the ability to generalize the work, he acknowledges the need for replications to test how robust it is and to determine how long the effects endure. 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 these unknowns, coauthor 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.”

The research appears in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provided funding for this research.

Source: Stanford University