Research Summary

Participatory research on using virtual reality to teach ocean acidification: a study in the marine education community

Virtual reality could help educators teach climate change issues like ocean acidification

Environmental Education Research
2021

Climate change education spans a wide array of topics and issues stemming from the cause of climate change: greenhouse gas emissions. One of the effects of these emissions is ocean acidification, during which the pH level of seawater decreases, or becomes more acidic, over time. This inhibits the ocean ecosystem to function normally, causing serious implications for environmental and human health. Despite ocean acidification being taught in the curriculum and scientific research on ocean acidification made available to the public, many people are still unaware of its impacts. On a broader scale, society has not met the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This study aimed to position ocean acidification through virtual reality as an effective climate change example to motivate pro-environmental behaviors. The study was conducted with a group of marine science educators and explored whether virtual reality could mitigate the challenges of teaching ocean acidification.

Virtual reality immerses the user in multi-sensory, three-dimensional experiences that make the user feel they are in that virtual setting. This is achieved through using a head-mounted display and hand controllers that includes visuals, sounds, and haptics to imitate touch. Because of the advanced tracking system on virtual reality systems, it can detect the user’s movements and emulate the movements in the virtual setting. Further, the virtual setting can react to these movements. This makes the user feel they are actively participating in that environment. Though virtual reality has been proven to impact human behavior from previous research, little is known about the impact of virtual reality specific to climate change education and pro-environmental behavior.

The study was conducted over the course of five stages, prior to the National Marine Educators Association Conference (NEMA) in July 2019. The first stage included an online survey that asked respondents to share five challenges they faced in teaching ocean acidification. The participant pool for this survey was gathered from social media, listservs, and groups within the marine educator community. In total, 50 participants were from the United States, while 20 were from various countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. The stage one survey group included primarily formal and informal educators (as well as scientists, students, and other participants) who taught middle- and high-school students. In the second stage of the study, the researchers categorized the challenges presented from the survey results. In stage three, the researchers posted a second online survey to the same social media, listservs, and groups within the marine educator community, which asked participants to rank the challenge categories on a severity scale from “not a problem at all” to “extremely serious problem.” This survey included 104 participants from the United States and 19 from other countries. About 60% of the respondents to the survey in stage three were formal educators and most respondents taught high school-aged students. Stage four took place at NEMA and was open to the previous survey respondents and other marine educators at the conference. The participants were immersed in a six-minute virtual reality that depicted carbon emissions from cars’ exhaust in a traffic jam traveling into the ocean. The scene then showed a coral reef affected by ocean acidification. Participants were shown a healthy reef and asked to count sea snails. Participants were returned to a reef affected by ocean acidification and asked to count sea snails (there were none). In stage five, the same participants that experienced virtual reality in stage four were divided into small focus groups of three to four for two hours during the conference. These small groups were asked to discuss how virtual reality could help the challenges of teaching ocean acidification and what this virtual learning content should look like, then share their conclusions with researchers. There were 23 marine educators, including formal and informal educators from elementary to higher education, in both stage four and five. The researchers summarized the data into four main themes of challenges facing educators in teaching ocean acidification.

First, the researchers found that ocean acidification is a complex process to teach, as it is largely intangible. Study participants shared that it is difficult to get students to understand that their actions significantly impact the environment and how actions on land translate to ocean acidification. Second, the language around ocean acidification may be too advanced for many people because of the chemistry or science vocabulary involved in the process. Third, educators do not always have the scientific background to teach ocean acidification. Educators may also have barriers to the tools, time, and resources needed to fully explain ocean acidification. Fourth, many educators and students may not have a personal connection with the ocean because they have not been to an ocean, are not located near an ocean, or feel it is far removed from their everyday lives. Therefore, marine issues like ocean acidification may not be perceived as a pressing issue to some individuals.

There were limitations in this study. For one, the majority of participants were based in the United States. The cultural, geographical, and educational biases of the participants may have impacted their insights about the challenges in teaching ocean acidification, rendering the results not generalizable. The researchers also acknowledged that virtual reality is not the only tool for visualization. For example, 2D visualizations on a computer can achieve the same goal in teaching some aspects of ocean acidification. Further, the research on the effectiveness of virtual reality is inconclusive. In some instances, virtual reality was proven useful in obtaining certain learning outcomes while in others, it was deemed less useful or not at all useful.

The study suggested that despite the challenges revealed by participants in the study, virtual reality may augment traditional classroom lessons and help educators teach ocean acidification. Further, the researchers proposed this will help both students and the general public grasp the issue more clearly, leading to more pro-environmental behaviors. To address the four main themes that resulted from the study, the researchers shared three ways virtual reality could take form: perspective taking, empowerment, and visualization. A perspective taking virtual reality experience may include a scenario in which the participant must act as a person whose food is impacted by ocean acidification. Empowerment may embody an underwater coral reef experience or showing the impact of their behaviors. A visualization experience may bring to life the invisible components of ocean acidification, like putting form to a carbon molecule that can be readily observed.

The Bottom Line

One effect of climate change is ocean acidification which inhibits the normal ocean ecosystem function, causing serious environmental and human health implications. Despite the best efforts of climate change educators, pro-environmental behavior is not happening at the societal level to reduce climate change impacts. The researchers aimed to position ocean acidification through virtual reality as a method to inspire pro-environmental behaviors and assist educators. The study was conducted with a group of marine educators to identify the challenges of teaching ocean acidification. The results yielded four main themes of teaching challenges, and the researchers proposed three types of virtual reality that may augment traditional classroom lessons and help educators teach ocean acidification.