VR can complement undergraduate environment education in meaningful ways—and even offer opportunities and insight that are inaccessible by other means.
Your arms morph into flippers. Your back grows round and hardens. You swim through thick ocean waters, dodging fishing gear and ships that can maim along the way. You are a loggerhead sea turtle—or at least that is what your brain perceives when you wear a virtual reality headset and enter Project SHELL (Simulating Living Habitat Experiences of Living Loggerheads), a research project of the University of Oregon and the University of Florida.
But your experience does not end when the headset comes off. From a sensory perspective, the dangers you faced while embodying a turtle threatened you. As a result, you increased your empathy for loggerheads, your understanding of environmental threats and your motivation to protect the species and its habitat, according to a study published in Scientific Reports.
Reaching for technology may sound like a counterintuitive approach to teaching about the environment. And indeed, if simulated environments replace students’ exposure to nature, then something is off. But researchers have found that virtual reality can complement undergraduate environmental education in meaningful ways—and even offer opportunities and insight that are inaccessible by other means.
The education market for virtual reality was valued at $900 million in 2018, though a report released earlier this month now expects it to grow to more than $10 billion by 2025. VR for environmental education is one part of this market.
To be sure, the technology has pitfalls, especially when simulating traumatic experiences in nature, according to Pimentel. Students need context. For example, the VR simulation of a turtle caught in fishing gear might be paired with readings and discussions of how threats are addressed in the real world. But academic papers on environment topics also have shortcomings, according to some researchers.