Research Summary

Two ways of acquiring environmental knowledge: by encountering living animals at a beehive and by observing bees via digital tools

Using Virtual Animal Encounters to Foster Environmental Knowledge

International Journal of Science Education

In today’s digital era, many researchers, educators, policy makers, and parents express a growing interest in, yet also concern about, the role of technology in environmental education. With this interest, important and potentially tricky questions arise, such as: Can technology based educational experiences promote and support environmental learning in ways that are comparable to live-animal and place-based experiences? Researchers explored this question in the context of a school-based environmental education program.

The researchers examined the ways in which a live interaction versus a virtual interaction might affect students’ environmental knowledge related to honeybees. Specifically, the researchers compared two educational programs that aimed to foster pollinator awareness among secondary-school students: one of the programs used live honeybees and the other used a digital interactive program, in which students could observe a beehive via live stream videos from cameras positioned at different angles inside and outside of the beehive. As prior research has indicated that one of the barriers to effective learning is a perception that insects are frightening or dangerous, the researchers also sought to measure how students’ differing perceptions of bees affected their knowledge in both programs.

A total of 354 students ages 10 to 14 participated in the study in Bavaria, Germany. Researchers divided the students into two groups: group 1 included 162 students in the live-bee program, and group 2 included 192 students in the virtual-bee program. The two programs used student-centered learning approaches and covered similar content about bees. They differed, however, in the way that students interacted with the bees. In the first program, students visited a local beehive and interacted 25 with live bees; in the second program, students used an online interactive tool to access a remote beehive and interact with bees virtually.

The researchers administered questionnaires to the students at three different times: 1 to 2 weeks before the program, immediately after participating in the program, and 6 to 9 weeks after completing the program. The questionnaires included multiple choice items related to students’ content knowledge related to bees, as well as items related to students’ attitudes and perceptions about bees.

The researchers found that both live and virtual programs produced comparable increases in students’ knowledge about bees immediately after the program. Students also retained the knowledge gains 6 to 9 weeks after the program. For both the live and virtual groups, the researchers found significant positive correlations between students’ perceptions of bee conservation and their bee knowledge at the pre-program as well as at the 6-to-9- weeks post-program time.

The authors noted that students in both programs showed significant knowledge gains whether they initially had positive or negative perceptions of bee conservation. Furthermore, there was no correlation between students’ perceptions of the dangerousness of bees and their knowledge levels at any of the three time points after the program.

The Bottom Line

Both virtual and live-animal programs can be effective for supporting environmental knowledge gains among middle-school students in the short and longer term. Programs that allow students to experience nature firsthand are associated with students’ high motivation, situational emotions, and cognitive achievement. In cases where weather, time, availability, or other barriers may keep programs from providing live-animal experiences, educators should feel comfortable offering virtual experiences (high-quality live stream video, for example), as these may be similarly effective in terms of motivating knowledge gains.