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Virtual Reality Enables First Coast Children Explore Estuaries

The education team at GTM Research Reserve has been visiting fourth-grade elementary classes in the First Coast area since May 2019, conducting an interactive virtual reality (VR) pilot program in the process.

The motivation behind this study is to integrate virtual reality technology into the Estuaries 101 curriculum, to facilitate a realistic and interactive first-person experience for the students. They will be able to gain more insight into the estuary. Virtual reality technology lets the students delve into all aspects of wildlife in innovative ways. According to GTM, the implementation of VR-based learning is expected to facilitate benefits for teachers and students alike.

Several schools lying within the confines of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve are incapable of taking students Reserve’s educational programs due to financial constraints. The VR initiative tackles the issues of transportation by facilitating realistic immersive experiences, without the teachers or students having to step out of the classroom.

The students can use the immersive features of virtual reality technology to observe and get familiar with different estuary habitats. VR can help to diversify the abilities of students to interact with scientific data.

According to Josie Spearman, the education coordinator at GTM believes that the motivation behind accepting funding was reaching student groups that are affected by distance and transport-based issues. She said that embracing virtual reality was a major step for diversifying distance learning. The GTM educational team has set a three-rotation plan for various estuary-related undertakings, to let students from each classroom become parts of the virtual reality study.

Image source: Wjctnews

It must be noted that educators are not keen on replacing in-field and hands-on exercises with their digital counterparts. The focus is on offering an alternative mode of learning to students who face distance and transportation-related issues, with the motive of inspiring and helping students to visit the reserve.

Spearman remarked that there was no need for preventing students who intend to come on-site. Instead, the team is trying to raise interest with the help of an immersive experience, so that they can gain greater knowledge of the estuary before visiting on-site. She said that the students facing financial difficulties can come on-site. The educators are hopeful of implementing beta testing for high functioning, non-verbal and verbal autistic students.

GTM intends to expand long-distance learning for more Title I schools. It hopes that the virtual reality-based experiences with students can generate greater GTM ecosystems understanding and impressing the significance of maintaining a biodiverse and healthy estuary, capable of responding to changes.

The greater objective for the future is to diversify National Estuarine Research Reserve Systems (NERRS) across the nation. Spearman remarked that there are joint efforts with various local bodies, and revealed that the organisation is currently collaborating with a curriculum specialist to dissect its understanding of how autistic students can learn. She emphasised that her team wanted to teach the students how to use this immersive technology.

The virtual reality program is in line with the “GTM for All Initiative,” launched during winter 2018.

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