Developing Ocean Literacy through Virtual Reality and Distance Learning

The EARTH Teacher Program at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute was developed to promote the use of near-real-time data from ocean observatories to design and test outreach with the Internet as an interface to scientists, teachers, students, and the public. Facilitated by George Matsumoto, the MBARI EARTH workshops have been bringing educators, scientists, and engineers together to dive into the oceans of data available from current research and develop lesson plans that teachers can use to build ocean literacy for their audiences for more than 15 years. These lesson plans are available on the MBARI website, and educators are free to use or modify them as necessary to fit their curriculum needs.

2019 EARTH Teacher Workshop participants, facilitators, and presenters at MBARI in Moss Landing, CA

The 2019 EARTH teacher workshop, held at MBARI in Moss Landing, California from June 2-5, 2019, added a new component to the workshop: virtual reality and distance learning. Nine teachers from across the nation including Hawaii gathered with scientists, educators, and innovators from a variety of institutions for a few packed days of exploring the latest in marine science education technology. Following are some details of the presentations, compiled by workshop participants Jessica Hennelly (Palatine, IL), Katie Lodes (St. Louis, MO), and Megan McCall (Daphne, AL).

Erika Woolsey, Ph.D.

How can we connect people to the ocean despite geographic and fiscal limitations?

Erika Woolsey is doing just that using virtual reality (VR) technology. CEO and co-founder of The Hydrous, Woolsey is working to make the ocean “open access” so that ALL people can appreciate its marvels and learn about the severe threats of climate change and human impacts. During EARTH 2019 workshop, Woolsey became our professional dive guide as she led us on a deep sea dive of Palau without leaving our seats from the MBARI Research station! Woolsey shared the new VR film The Hydrous presents: IMMERSE, in which she narrates as we explore the coral reefs before and after coral bleaching and observe many marine animals that seem to be within an arm’s reach. IMMERSE is now available for free from the Oculus Store and Viveport Video. Woolsey discussed other ways she is connecting people to the ocean by creating teaching tools such as 3D-printed models of color-changing coral and educational games, and training others to lead virtual dive sessions. Woolsey is not only breaking down the barriers between people and the ocean, she is providing people with the knowledge and tools we need to change the world.

Educators go on a virtual dive with The Hydrous presents: IMMERSE

Erika Woolsey demonstrates educational materials developed by The Hydrous to workshop participants

Géraldine Fauville

Education is all about preparing our students to be good people and productive members of society.

Dr. Géraldine Fauville, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, expanded our thinking and modeled great teaching by interspersing presentation slides with VR experiences. Fauville is interested in increasing environmental literacy, especially ocean literacy.

She showed us a 2D video on earthquake preparedness VR used by the San Mateo Fire Department. She discussed the positive social behaviors witnessed with VR programs available using “Becoming Homeless.” Even though this VR experience runs under 10 minutes, it has shown users to be more empathetic even eight weeks after participating! EARTH teachers volunteered to partake in several VR experiences: the Pit, Superhero, Tree-cutting and Ocean Acidification. While those volunteers who participated radiated wonder both with their faces and vocal outbursts, the rest of us who were bystanders and watching in 2D also expressed awe. Although studies have shown that VR games impact behavior and motivation, we do not know how they impact learning. A literary search shows only nine research papers on environmental literacy.

VR should not be the only tool used to increase learning and empathy in the classroom. Users may become addicted, put themselves in dangerous situations (like running into each other), and could also feel uncomfortable (headaches and nausea, for instance). However, VR can be the right tool to use when a real-world application would be dangerous, impossible, counterproductive or expensive (using the acronym DICE can help educators remember these). VR seems to help environmental literacy by allowing participants to experience rather than just read statistics, connect the cause to consequences, and to show the invisible (like how CO2 reacts with water).

Although the cost of a classroom set may still be out of the price range for most of us, prices are coming down. Six years ago, the cost of running a VR program would have run $140,000 for a headset, tracking devices, and a massive computer to run the game. Today, there are stand-alone goggles that cost around $400 (Oculus Quest).

Robyn Ehrlich carefully walks across a virtual pit

Géraldine Fauville guides Megan McCall through a Superhero VR simulation

Katy Scott

Did you know making Virtual Reality videos are so easy even a third grader can make one?

This is just one of many technology tools Katy Scott is using with students at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s world-class education programs. Katy is the STEM Integration Manager for the hundreds of school groups who visit the aquarium each year. Katy not only taught the EARTH 2019 participants how to make a virtual reality video, but put us to work that day and showed us how to create a 360° video right on the MBARI grounds. These tools are going to be game changers in the hands of teachers around the United States this year.

360° image of MBARI’s waterfront created with Cardboard Camera

Katy also gave us a tour of the Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership, the Aquarium’s amazing new space for science education and youth development. Using a combination of hands-on and collaborative learning, plus virtual and augmented reality, students are viewing the ocean with a whole new perspective. The education building has four learning labs with live animal displays, and collaborative learning spaces complete with 3D Printers, whiteboard walls, sewing machines, and anything you can imagine. The possibilities are endless!

Katy Scott demonstrates using Cardboard viewers to see 360° images

Katy Scott engages teachers in a VR experience at the Bechtel Center

Ben Erwin

“Whoa! What just happened! Where’s the laser? Oooooo! Ahhhhhhh!”

Those are some of the comments heard when our group used VR headsets to enter the virtual larvacean house created by Ben Erwin, MBARI ROV Pilot/Technician for the ROV Doc Ricketts. If you’re like me, pre-MBARI EARTH 2019 workshop, you are asking yourself, “What is a larvacean house?” So let me describe them to you! They are fascinating, pelagic tunicates (they look like clear tadpoles) that produce mucus and whip it up into a tube around their body to create a “house” that filters food from the water column. Ben has created a virtual version of this structure that is large enough for you to enter and have the perspective of the larvacean inside. He is quoted in an article by Vicki Stein (2018) at MBARI as starting this all with “hyper-nerdism” (which is my new favorite term). He got his start with his college Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) ROV Competition team that took second place to a Russian team in the international competition and led him to work for MBARI. Throughout his presentation and in conversation he makes great movie and sci-fi references to the new technology, such as Iron Man. This is one of his talents, along with his enthusiasm for the subject, that enables him connect with his audience. His 3D projects also include taking over 7,500 pictures of a coral-covered rock at Sur Ridge, off the coast of central California to render a 3D model and enable the photogrammetry of the image. I look forward to sharing this information with the budding ROV pilots and team members of our school’s own ROV team, as Ben Erwin will surely be inspirational to the next generation coming up to work with him in this field.


Stein, V. (2018, February 7). From science fiction to (virtual) reality.

Educators watch as Kristina Vetter uses virtual reality to explore inside a giant larvacean house

Ben Erwin guides Lindsay Smith through a virtual giant larvacean house

Adam Merry & Craig Mink

All I can say is: Photogrammetry and UNITY!

Before EARTH 2019, I had no idea that photogrammetry was even a word and certainly would not have used it in the same sentence as Unity (as in the software), but now…well, both are making it more real in the classroom. Monterey Bay Aquarium multimedia engineers, Adam Merry and Craig Mink pulled us all outside of our comfort zones by wowing us with tales of how many of the interactive exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium use VR to enhance the lessons absorbed as guests wander through the exhibits. They scaffolded their talk with their own paths to their current jobs, providing us with examples of how they use on-line software in their daily work and then gently encouraging us to try 3D, photogrammetry and VR software to build 21st century skills with our students. Many of the software programs (such as 3D software Blender, photogrammetry software Meshroom, or VR software Unity for Education) are available free of charge, especially for educators.

Photogrammetry involves taking 360° pictures of an object, such as a rock for a penguin exhibit or a local tide pool, and then blending those images to make 3D-printed models and/or images that can be used in VR to make measurements or spark questions about a habitat.

One of the many Aha! moments from time spent with Merry and Mink was when they both articulated the idea that using these technology tools provides engaging opportunities for students to develop new skills and build the resilience that comes from open-ended exploration. The classroom participants then become creators—instead of just consumers—of technology.

Adam Merry and Craig Mink explore 3D visualization tools with workshop participants

Adam Merry and Craig Mink discuss 3D visualization software applications

Adam Merry and Craig Mink discuss 3D visualization software applications

Juliano Calil, Ph.D.

Wait—I have to click a button that makes the sea level rise on a community?

This was less than ideal for my environmentally-conscious self, even if it was all virtual! Despite the sensation, the tool that Dr. Juliano Calil and his partners at Virtual Planet Technologies have created for simulating coastal adaptation changes is nothing less than brilliant! Using his drone footage, 3D technologies and virtual reality tools, you are able to flyover and visualize future impacts of coastal change in particular coastal communities. For everyone who wasn’t able to join us for the workshop, you can see a 2D video of the Sea Level Rise Experience on the Virtual Planet website. This amazing tool is a game changer that not only allows you to consider the implications of future changes, but also aids city planners and residents to prepare for future issues. The experience also correlates changes with socioeconomic data from communities in order to discuss equitable preparation for all areas. This is such an essential piece that infuses design thinking in the entire process of planning for our future world!

Juliano Calil and Megan McCall discuss the applications of virtual reality in marine education

Katie Lodes virtually explores climate change through the Sea Level Rise Experience

Plans are already underway for next year’s EARTH Teacher Workshop, which is scheduled for August 3-7, 2020. Details and information on how to apply can be found on the EARTH website.

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