Can virtual reality inspire action on climate change?

Our seas are rising, summers are becoming hotter and winters wetter; we hear about the impact of climate change but how many of us have seen the effects for ourselves?

University of Leeds
Jun 13 · 4 min read

Liam Taylor, PhD researcher in School of Geography, explains how University of Leeds outreach is using virtual reality to teach climate change in schools.

For many, climate change can feel like a distant problem. It’s too easy to think it affects other people, in other environments, and other countries. A sense of urgency is lost, despite the increasing need for global co-operation on climate solutions.

The harsh reality is that many people who have the power to take action on climate change, such as politicians, scientists, and policymakers, feel far removed from its environmental effects.

For many years, we have been teaching the science and solutions of climate change to school children and the wider public through our outreach programme. But during one session, when I was speaking to a Year 9 student, I was surprised to be asked: “What does climate change look like?” I began telling them about the bleaching corals of the Great Barrier Reef, and the receding glaciers of the Himalaya, but quickly realised that these impacts might as well be a million miles away.

Feeling connected to climate change

To combat this, we are now bringing immersive virtual reality into schools through our project The Reality of Climate Change, allowing pupils to explore the effects of climate change first-hand.

When designing the sessions, we wanted to understand what children and young people most want in an outreach activity. Feedback from Year 9 students told us what they want most are sessions that are creative, interactive and immersive. Virtual reality makes our outreach programme engaging and exciting, but also, crucially, helps pupils feel more connected to the effects of climate change.

There is evidence from other disciplines that users of virtual reality can experience a strong emotional response, leading to a change in attitudes and behaviours. For example, participants in Becoming Homeless, an interactive video from Stanford University, were found to have higher empathy and be more likely to take action on homeless issues, than those who only received information.

In one study, virtual reality users were shown to be more likely to empathise with homeless people and take action on homelessness issues

Virtual reality is also being used effectively in understanding dementia, and many apps have been developed in order to do this including A Walk Through Dementia developed by Alzheimers Society UK. It allows the user to experience everyday scenarios through the eyes of a dementia patient and is being used to train healthcare professionals.

However, much more research is needed into whether use of virtual reality can influence behaviours around issues such as long-term political action or environmental awareness (e.g. empathy towards animals).

How does it work?

We use Oculus Go headsets with free, pre-written applications to teach the science and solutions of climate change. Using Google Street View, pupils can dive into healthy, bleached, and dead coral reefs and compare the difference in their ecosystem structures. With YouTube VR, they can watch glaciers calve and recede before their eyes. Applications from National Geographic and the BBC can also transport the pupils deep inside rainforests to meet the great primates who are struggling with the effects of deforestation.

Virtual reality enables school pupils to explore the effects of climate change on environments such as glaciers and coral reefs

Sessions from The Reality of Climate Change compliment the curriculum and are around one and two hours in length, under the themes of ice, ocean, forest, human, or general climate change. The pupils explore a variety of healthy and damaged natural environments, often taking part in interactive activities. Pupils are encouraged to think creatively about the interdisciplinary aspect of climate change. They are paired up for safety, and to make sure they take breaks.

The growing amount of free content for Oculus Go means it is an accessible and low cost option for education settings. And with rapid advances in smartphone cameras, our students can also use the headsets to immerse themselves in on-the-ground University of Leeds research. Smartphones can produce 360° pictures by stitching together 2D pictures, enabling us to fly students to anywhere on Earth that we conduct research. We could even extend our virtual reality project to University open days, virtual field trips, and public engagement.

We hope that bringing The Reality of Climate Change into schools is engaging more pupils in higher education. Longer-term, we hope it brings the effects of climate change closer to home and inspires the next generation to take action.

Virtual Reality is at the heart of the new Centre for Immersive Technologies at the University of Leeds, designed to harness the power of immersive technologies, to upskill the next generation and push the boundaries of possibilities in research and education.

Working alongside public and private sector partners, the Centre aims to create positive change across society. More than 80 researchers from a range of University subjects will focus on five priority areas — health, transport, education, productivity and culture.

University of Leeds

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