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Laura McGinty, a high school biology teacher in Seattle, had a lot to fit into her students’ first lesson on climate change: a visit to struggling penguin colonies in Antarctica, a flight over melting glaciers in Greenland and a walk through a disappearing oasis in the Sahara. But by slipping into new virtual reality headsets, they could do it all in a single class period.
“If you don’t see it, if you’re not experiencing it right now, then it’s not a reality,” McGinty said. “One of the things that I really, really liked about VR was that we can span geography. In the last five years, it’s probably been one of my favorite lessons, hands down.”
Unlike textbooks or video, virtual reality fully immerses users in a dynamic virtual world – and the headset device can be as simple as a mobile phone inserted into an inexpensive Google Cardboard viewer. Now, teachers around the world are using virtual reality to overcome barriers of physical distance and give their students a first-person view of the changes scientists are observing in remote areas. Many say these VR experiences are sparking new interest in global environmental issues.
McGinty recalled that one of her students was particularly affected by their “class trip.”
“The thing that got him was the penguin colonies,” she said. “He had no idea that all those penguins were dying because of this. With VR being such a rich, real experience, it tugged at some of those empathy cords that would not otherwise have been activated.”
At the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Philadelphia last week, virtual reality was the topic of 50 different talks or activities. In one, teachers from Knox Grammar School, an independent boys’ school in Sydney, Australia, detailed how VR experiences are woven into their science curriculum. Even kindergarten students get a taste – during a “Sustainable Solutions” unit, they assume the perspective of a sea creature and use CoSpaces Edu software to animate both a healthy ocean ecosystem and one cluttered by human garbage.
“Being able to see it can hit home a little bit easier for them, and they can really have a deep understanding of ‘Wow, I’m only one person, but by putting my rubbish in the recycling bin, I can actually make a change,’” said Eloise Feltham, a Knox teacher.
U.S. scientists are also developing new teaching tools that use VR. A series of Earth 360 videos co-produced by NASA and PBS allows students to “join” scientists flying over Greenland’s glaciers with Operation IceBridge, the largest airborne survey of Earth’s polar ice, or divers measuring water temperatures near coral reefs in Hawaii’s Kanoehe Bay.
The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, curates a Virtual Dive Gallery designed to connect people with the country’s underwater habitats. On a virtual dive to Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary off the shores of Galveston, Texas, students can “swim” through healthy, colorful star corals as well as ones that have been bleached white as their covering of nutritious algae dies off due to warm ocean water.
Related: Can Virtual Reality “teach” empathy?
Educators say the immersive, interactive nature of virtual reality experiences offers a new pathway to engage students in learning about science and environmental issues.
“In my experience, it is a phenomenally effective learning tool. There is literally a different brain-oriented sensory experience when you ingest that kind of information in a VR world,” said Mitchell Tartt, who heads the Conservation Science Division at the National Marine Sanctuaries. “The level of excitement in the room is different, the attention that is given and the curiosity that is piqued is just different.”
Tartt pointed out that the technology can help students surmount several kinds of limitations.
“Less than 1% of the US population scuba dives, so you’re instantly limited in terms of who can experience most of what the United States is,” said Tartt. “In American Samoa, our sanctuary education coordinator takes a virtual reality kit to summer camps and villages all around the island and gives students a chance to see what it looks like just offshore. Most of the children on the island don’t even swim, so they have no concept of what it looks like under the water.”
Students can also explore under the sea through the 2017 Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, which has a VR version available to educators at no cost. And over 900 VR Expeditions are available on the Google Expeditions cellphone app, including tours of the Great Barrier Reef and the rainforest on the island of Borneo in Indonesia.
The technology can also show students the effects the changing climate is having on human society. The VR experience that most affected McGinty was one where users interacted with Moroccans who were abandoning the oasis where they’d made their home for generations, forced out as the natural aquifer that used to supply their wells dried up.
“There’s one interview that was incredibly poignant, where this man was talking about how his father taught him how to hunt small game and go fishing where the oasis used to be,” she said. “And now there’s no more oasis, no more game, no more fishing. So he has nothing to teach his son — the culture is disappearing. And, I mean, this is right here, right now, direct impact.”
This story about virtual field trips was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.