Rapid advancements in virtual reality and augmented reality have recently opened up a new genre of “electronic field trips” that mimic hikes, dives, and treks through nature.
But spontaneous encounters—and the feeling they evoke—would be next to impossible to reproduce in a VR setting. It’s the kind of unpredictable thing nature does best, inspiring awe and wonder—and hopefully a love of learning outdoors.
Just ask a group of college students who recently trekked to a forest before dawn to listen to a chorus of early birds.
They had hiked into the woods for that very purpose as part of a field study course, asked to identify as many species as possible by their vocalizations. After 20 minutes, most had picked up the territorial call of a red-shouldered hawk and two acorn woodpeckers chattering in the trees. A few careful listeners detected the twitter of a hummingbird.
During their discussion of birds, no one expected a surprising mammal encounter. But when Douglas McCauley, a biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, emerged from the bushes with a small rodent in hand, he delivered a brief impromptu lecture about its features and then let it go.
McCauley co-teaches a course in vertebrate biology with Hillary Young, an associate professor of ecology, evolution, and marine biology.
“While they have a place in the pedagogical toolbox, the newest technologies aren’t necessarily the best options. It’s unclear whether they improve on more traditional methods like taking students outside before dawn to listen to birds,” McCauley says.
The half a dozen seniors said they wouldn’t have traded their experience for staying in bed and using VR goggles to “recreate” the encounter at their leisure. In fact, many said the field trip marked the first time in years they had sat quietly in nature, listening and learning, for more than a couple minutes.
But that doesn’t mean VR and AR field trips don’t have merit as environmental science teaching tools, particularly their capacity to move back and forth in time.
“With virtual reality, we could have transported the students on our birding trip back to a Pleistocene dawn in those same woods when they were full of 20-foot-tall ground sloths and hungry saber-tooth tigers,” McCauley says. “Or we could have taken them forward in time to a climate-altered future where bird migrations had been disrupted.”
AR holds some promise if not used heavy-handedly, McCauley argues in a new paper in Science.
Consider Harvard University’s AR simulation of Black’s Nook Pond in Massachusetts, in which users can take photos of pond wildlife, catch bugs in the mud, measure virtual weather, collect population data, and sample water chemistry using their smartphones.
At certain points predetermined by GPS coordinates, a digital teaching assistant appears, who might prompt participants on how to take a water sample. Or, when the smartphone is shown a plant, the program could supply an animation of a carbon atom moving through the plant during photosynthesis.
“You have this augmented experience of looking at a detail or process you can’t see in real life,” McCauley says.
“I think there’s an interesting possibility there to enhance the outdoor experience. But how far do you push that before you lose some of the core values of being in nature: the opportunity to chat with the person next to you rather than staring at your phone, or the capacity to actually see the plant and experience nature with your own eyes rather than on a digital screen?”