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Virtual Reality Gives First Coast Kids New Way To Experience Estuaries

Jens Meyer
Associated Press

GTM Research Reserve’s education team has been traveling to First Coast area fourth-grade elementary classes since May 2019, conducting a virtual reality (VR) interactive pilot program.

The purpose of the study is to pair the Estuaries 101 curriculum with VR technology so students will experience an interactive and realistic first-person encounter, which will facilitate long-distance learning about the estuary.

Credit GTM Research Research
The Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve is a marine sanctuary located in St. Johns County.

With VR, students will have the opportunity to explore all facets of wildlife in new ways. GTM believes that in turn will make the learning process beneficial to students and teachers.

Many of the schools within the boundaries of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve are financially unable to transport students to the Reserve for educational programs.

The project addresses the transportation problem by providing an immersive, realistic experience without requiring students and teachers to leave the classroom.

Using the immersive qualities of virtual reality, students are introduced to the different habitats within an estuary and able to make observations.

In the future, VR is expected to expand on students’ abilities to interact with scientific data.

“The whole premise of this grant that we’ve accepted - that we were funded for - was that we wanted to reach out to the students who had transportation and distance limitations. Virtual reality was a really big way for us to increase our distance learning opportunities,” said Josie Spearman GTM education coordinator.

GTM’s education team has devised three rotations completing different estuary-related activities, which allow all students in each of the classrooms to participate in the VR study.

Educators don’t want to replace hands-on, in-the-field activities with digital ones, but rather provide an alternative for students who are limited by transportation and distance, with the hope of encouraging and assisting them to visit the reserve in the future.

“We don’t want to prevent students from coming on site we want to encourage them and we hope that by piquing their interest with this immersive experience they will then be able to come on-site with a better knowledge of the estuary and we will be able to help them come on-site if they're having funding difficulties,” said Spearman.

The education team also hopes to implement beta testing for high functioning, verbal and non-verbal autistic students.

GTM wants to increase long-distance learning for additional Title I schools. The hope is that these VR experiences with students will lead to a greater understanding of GTM ecosystems and instill the importance of maintaining a healthy biodiverse estuary capable of adapting to change.

The goal is that eventually, the virtual experiences will expand to other National Estuarine Research Reserve Systems (NERRS) across the country. “We’re working with a lot of local organizations. We're working with a curriculum specialist to refine how we understand how students with autism are able to learn. We learn how to help them learn using this technology,” Spearman said.

The Reserve’s entire virtual reality program is aligned with the “GTM for All Initiative,” which was launched in the winter of 2018 through the National Estuarine Research Reserve with a goal of becoming accommodating and inclusive.

“If you love biodiversity, and you love the natural world, you should visit because it’s a pristine environment. You’re able to do everything from kayaking, bring your horses or dogs on the trails, you get to experience watching the birds or butterflies go in the estuary,” she said.

For more information about the program contact Josie Spearman at 904-823-4500.