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.
“Plenty of people are moved to tears after experiencing a [VR] boat strike or having to abandon their clutch of eggs,” Daniel Pimentel, one of the study’s co-authors, said in an email sent from a research vessel in the Pacific Ocean. He explained that it is easier for humans to empathize with a single victim rather than a group. “When it’s many, we are less capable of inferring the group’s emotional state, and we can identify less with the collective suffering, which can lead to desensitization.”
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 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 Blythe, an environmental sustainability professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada. “It’s often dense, full of jargon and in a journal that has a paywall.”
Blythe and her team discovered that both optimistic and pessimistic oceanic simulations elicited empathy from participants, but the latter elicited more. They published the results in People and Nature.
Despite acknowledged limitations, faculty who are enthusiastic about using VR to boost environmental understanding abound, especially when real-world visits are not feasible.
“We could fund students to go summit Mount Everest at 20 grand a pop,” said Patrick Hagge, a geography professor at Arkansas Tech University. “Or we could have students virtually see a simulation of Mount Everest.”
Hagge has used a Google Earth VR app with his students throughout the semester, rather than as a one-off, to create a sense of wonder about the planet. He reported on his students’ positive experiences in the Journal of Geography in Higher Education.
“You can scale the whole world in a classroom,” Hagge said.
Hagge acknowledged, however, that he also could “go on and on” about challenges of introducing VR in the classroom: the accessories and apps can be expensive. Administrators may think the technology is a game, so faculty may need to make the case for its educational value. The instructor needs time before and after class to set up and dismantle the tools. Once, Hagge’s class was scheduled to take place in a century-old building in a classroom with only two electrical outlets. That meant students were tripping over each other as they accessed the plugged-in tools. Also, students with anxiety can be apprehensive about trying the experience or “looking weird” in front of their peers.
“I learned really quickly that I’m never gonna force it on [students],” Hagge said. “It’s just an option you can try.” Despite the challenges, Hagge said that VR is not just another passive screen like in the “Zoom world.” Students move, engage and are changed by the experience.
In some cases, VR offers students an on-ramp to real-world experiences in nature, according to Mike Jerowsky, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia. As a graduate student teacher, he led students in a simulation of ecological restoration work in a bog in their local community. Afterward, many were moved to continue the experience in real life.
“They actually reach out to those organizations, go to the bog, get muddy, plant sphagnum moss, remove invasive species and get to work helping the bog,” Jerowsky said.
One of Jerowsky’s students was so captivated by 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’s also a way for them to learn about different types of technologies that they’re going to be using and working with in their professional lives,” Jerowsky said.
Sound academic research now supports the use of VR in fostering understanding and empathy for the natural world. Many faculty members, however, are at work to overcome the challenges of introducing VR in their classrooms, fueled in part by personal experiences with the tech.
Blythe, a self-described “coastal kid” from Newfoundland, now lives inland. Often, after her work is done for the day, she finds solace “underwater,” where she watches virtual bubbles rise to the water’s surface in a VR simulation of scuba diving.
“You lose track of who you are,” Sri Kalyanaraman, Pimentel’s co-author, said about the desolation he experienced while embodying a penguin floating alone on an iceberg during a VR simulation. “I’m looking all over the place, and I can’t find the food. My very survival is now contingent on ‘what am I going to do next?’”
Pimentel also spoke of a (real) young person named Turtle—so named when his parents noticed that he flailed on his back like a turtle after he was born. He grew up to love turtles, and Pimentel was moved to witness his reaction in the turtle embodiment simulator.
“They say don’t meet your heroes,” Pimentel said, “but they never said anything about embodying them.”