Virtual reality enhances students’ empathy for nature

Your arms turn into fins. Your back is growing and hardening. You swim in the thick ocean waters, dodging fishing gear and ships that can maim along the way. You’re a loggerhead sea turtle—or at least that’s what your brain perceives when you put on a VR headset and get into SHELL (Simulating Living Habitat Experiences for Loggerheads), a research project of the University of Oregon and the University of Florida.

But your experience doesn’t end when the headset goes off. From a sensory perspective, the dangers you encountered during the embodiment of a turtle are menacing You are. As a result, you have increased your empathy for adversaries, your understanding of environmental threats and your drive to protect species and their habitats, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.

“A lot of people were moved to tears after experiencing a [VR] One of the study’s co-authors, Daniel Pimentel, said in an email sent from a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean, the boat is hit or forced to abandon the egg clutch. He explained that it is easier for humans to empathize with a single victim than with a group. “When there are a large number, we are less able to infer the emotional state of the group, and we can limit less collective suffering, which can lead to desensitization.”

Access to technology may seem like a counterintuitive approach to environmental education. Indeed, if simulated environments replace students’ exposure to nature, something will be off. But researchers have found that virtual reality can complement undergraduate environmental education in meaningful ways — and even provide opportunities and insights that cannot be accessed by other means.

The virtual reality education market was valued at $900 million in 2018, although a report earlier this month now expects it to grow to more than $10 billion by 2025. VR for environmental education is part of that market.

Undoubtedly, the technology has flaws, especially when simulating painful experiences in nature, according to Pimentel. Students need context. For example, a virtual reality simulation of a turtle caught in fishing gear can be paired with readings and discussions about how to tackle threats in the real world.

But academic papers on environmental topics also have shortcomings, according to some researchers.

“I was frustrated that people don’t read our research, but why should they?” said Jessica Blyth, professor of environmental sustainability at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. “It’s often dense and jargon and in a journal with a firewall.”

Blythe and her team discovered that both optimistic and pessimistic oceanic simulations elicited sympathy from participants, but the latter elicited more. They published the results in people and nature.

Despite acknowledged limitations, faculty who are enthusiastic about using virtual reality to enhance environmental understanding abound, especially when real-world visits are not feasible.

“We can fund students to go to the top of Mount Everest at 20,000 a pop,” said Patrick Haag, a professor of geography at Arkansas Tech University. “Or we can have the students virtually watch a simulation of Mount Everest.”

Hagge used the Google Earth VR app with his students throughout the semester, rather than just once, to create a sense of wondering about the planet. Talk about the positive experiences of his students in Journal of Geography in Higher Education.

“You can scale the whole world in the classroom,” Hagg said.

However, Haag acknowledged that he can also “move forward” on the challenges of bringing virtual reality into the classroom: accessories and apps can be expensive. Officials may think technology is a game, so faculty members may need to prove its educational value. The teacher needs time before and after class to prepare and take apart the tools. Once upon a time, a Hajji class was scheduled to take place in a century-old building in a classroom with only two electrical outlets. This meant that the students were tripping over each other as they reached for the plugged-in tools. Also, students with anxiety can feel anxious about experiencing the experience or “looking weird” in front of their peers.

“I learned really quickly that I would never force it [students]Hajji said. “It’s just an option you can try.” Despite the challenges, Haag said VR isn’t just another passive screen like in the “Zoom World.” Students move, participate and are transformed through experience.

In some cases, virtual reality provides students with an opportunity to learn from the real world in nature, according to Mike Jerosky, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. As a graduate teacher, he led students in a simulation of ecological restoration work in a swamp in their local community. After that, many were transferred to continue the experiment in real life.

“They actually get to those organizations, they go into the swamp, they muddy, they grow algae, they remove the invasive species and they start working to help the swamp,” Jerosky said.

One of Jerowsky’s students was so intrigued with how the visuals were made that upon removing the headset, the student said, “I can’t wait to make one myself.” Months later, the student did.

“It is also a way for them to learn about different types of technologies that they will use and work with in their careers,” Jerosky said.

Sound academic research now supports the use of virtual reality to enhance understanding and empathy with the natural world. However, many faculty members are working to overcome the challenges of introducing virtual reality into their classrooms, driven in part by personal experiences with technology.

Blythe, who describes himself as a “coastal kid” from Newfoundland, now lives inland. Oftentimes, after she finishes her work for the day, she finds solace “underwater,” as she watches virtual bubbles rise to the surface of the water in a scuba diving virtual reality simulator.

“You lose track of your identity,” Sri Kalyanaraman, co-author of Pimentel, said of the devastation he experienced while embodying a penguin floating alone on an iceberg during a virtual reality simulation. “I’m looking everywhere, and I can’t find food. My very survival now depends on ‘What am I going to do next?'”

Pimentel also spoke of a (real) young man named Turtle – so named when his parents noticed he was hit on the back like a turtle after his birth. Growing up to love turtles, Pimentel was moved to witness his reaction in simulating turtle avatars.

Pimentel said, “They say don’t meet your heroes, but they never say anything about them embody they.”

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