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Virtual reality can be a powerful tool for environmental education

Virtual reality can be a powerful tool for environmental education. A team of researchers led by Stanford University has explored the use of virtual reality to help teach people about significant threats to the environment. The experts found that when individuals observed a virtual simulation showing the harmful impacts of ocean acidification, it helped them to gain a more meaningful understanding of the issue.

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

Professor Bailenson and his team shared the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience with more than 270 people, including high school and college students. In one phase of the study, high school seniors from a marine biology class took on the virtual identity of a pink coral that lived on a productive reef filled with sea urchins, snails, and other animals.

By the time the simulation reached the end of the century, the colorful species had been replaced by slimy green algae and the silver Salema Porgy, which is a fish that is expected to thrive in more acidic waters. Ultimately, the coral skeletons completely disintegrated.

The narration explained to the students: “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 simulation was based on the research of Fiorenza Micheli, a renowned professor of Marine Science at Stanford.

After the experience, the students scored 150 percent higher on questions about the causes and mechanisms of ocean acidification, and the information was found to be retained weeks later.

“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, who is  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,” said Professor Bailenson. “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.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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