George Lucas Educational Foundation
Technology Integration

Lessons From Antarctica: Bringing Virtual Reality Into Environmental Education

A National Geographic fellowship brought a teacher to Antarctica, where she learned a lot about using VR to boost student engagement.

December 4, 2023
Courtesy of Katie Mauro
Katie Mauro (right) traveled on a Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship.

In March, as a K–4 library media specialist, I embarked on a transformative journey to Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas). This incredible experience was made possible through the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship, a partnership between Lindblad Expeditions and the National Geographic Society.  

Teamed with two other teachers—Caroline Little, a middle school science teacher from St. Paul, Minnesota, and Karina New, a fifth-and-sixth-grade teacher from Vancouver, Canada—I embraced an unparalleled professional development opportunity. My central focus revolved around leveraging educational technology, particularly virtual reality (VR) and coding, to elevate student-centered instruction, and I’m excited to share the insights and discoveries gathered from this enriching expedition below.

A Meaningful Immersion

For three weeks, my colleagues and I were ambassadors aboard the National Geographic Explorer, collaborating and learning alongside Lindblad’s naturalists (historians, marine biologists, ornithologists, and undersea specialists), a National Geographic photographer, and an excellent staff and crew. Our aim was to immerse ourselves in firsthand experiences and gather knowledge to nurture geographic awareness and foster a global perspective within our students and community. 

My goal was to design lessons that catered to all students, whether utilizing high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech resources. To achieve this, I actively engaged in every naturalist’s presentation. Each day, one to three naturalists captivated us with their storytelling, unveiling their diverse specialties and viewpoints. Their insights sparked ideas that I eagerly jotted down, intending to infuse them into my teaching methods. 

A pivotal moment for me occurred during a lecture with Jasper Doest, a photographer for National Geographic. He asked us to consider the story we wanted to tell and to capture images that would make our friends and family fall in love with Antarctica, fostering care and concern. He urged us to create photos that would leave them in awe, surprise them with intimate details, and invite them along on our journey. 

Taking his words to heart, I found myself asking—before capturing each photo—“What is the story I want to tell?” While close-up images of penguins, seals, and whales are adorable, I found myself zooming out to include more perspective. Antarctica’s sheer vastness often exceeded the limits of my lens, compelling me to explore different viewpoints. 

Positioning myself from a Zodiac, a type of inflatable boat, I initially focused on a pod of humpback whales as they began rounding out of the water before their dive. Then, I zoomed out, capturing our 148-passenger vessel against the ice shelf, emphasizing its colossal size in comparison with the ship and the towering mountain backdrop. My intent was to offer my students and community varied perspectives, allowing them to grasp the immense scale of Antarctica. 

During our journey to South Georgia, the scenery and perspective underwent a dramatic shift, immersing us in a thriving ecosystem bustling with life. We found ourselves amid vast colonies of penguins, numbering up to 250,000, and encountered adorable fur seal pups at every turn. Transitioning from South Georgia to the Falkland Islands, we experienced yet another striking change in our surroundings. Welcoming us were vibrant, colorful homes and a friendly town. As we approached the end of a hike on Carcass Island, amid stunning landscape views and numerous encounters with penguins and albatrosses, we encountered a large amount of marine debris that had washed ashore. 

This unfortunate sight marked our discovery of plastic pollution in Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falkland Islands. Along with our efforts to clean up during the hike, I consciously integrated the issue of marine pollution into the lessons I was creating, making plans to discuss it with students alongside the impacts of climate change. 

Applying Travel to Teaching

After returning home, I immediately began crafting a variety of antarctic-themed technology lessons integrating VR and coding, returning to the inquiry that sparked my investigation during this immersive expedition. 

Starting with a penguin-themed VR lesson using Expeditions Pro, I tailored the content for my kindergarten and first-grade students who had already been introduced to the antarctic penguin species during their math unit. Expanding on their existing knowledge, I invited them to delve into exploring the habitats of Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, king, Magellanic, rockhopper, and macaroni penguins, all while exploring the impacts of climate change and marine pollution—which impact the species. 

Next, I moved on to creating coding lessons for different age groups. For second through fourth graders, I curated high-tech lessons centered around Dash robots by Wonder Workshop. These lessons utilized the Blockly app, a drag-and-drop programming tool, and a 150 cm x 240 cm mat with 30 cm grids, synchronizing with the robot’s size and movements. 

Simultaneously, I tailored low-tech lessons for kindergarten through first graders, featuring Bee-Bots, simple directional robots. These lessons integrated a 75 cm x 75 cm mat with 15 cm grids, aligning with the smaller-scale movements of these robots. Additionally, I adapted these lessons to offer unplugged versions suitable for various gridded mat sizes, ensuring adaptability across different learning environments.

To kick off each coding lesson, students decorated their robots or game pieces to resemble their chosen penguin species and crafted icebergs and leopard seals from recycled materials. Starting in cell A1, the task involved maneuvering through the treacherous antarctic waters, evading leopard seals and icebergs, all while ensuring the safe delivery of food to their eagerly awaiting chick. 

VR, STEM, and Environmental Education

To further bring this pedagogy to life, we hosted an immersive antarctic-themed evening with VR and coding challenges and discovered that these lessons were extremely versatile, seamlessly integrating into math or science classes and media centers. Regardless of the setting, these activities foster profound engagement in cross-curricular STEM lessons. They actively promote communication, collaboration, and the cultivation of geographic awareness, fostering a global perspective among students.

While crafting immersive coding and VR experiences in Antarctica was undeniably extraordinary, the techniques and skills applied are easily replicable. When creating coding challenges, simplicity is key. Typically, I start by laying out a mat, incorporating one or two obstacles, and defining the robot’s starting and ending points. While the cross-curricular elements vary in each challenge, the foundational computer science principles remain the same.

In the realm of creating VR experiences, starting small is the way to go. For instance, if you have a unit on community helpers, bring your 360-degree camera on a road trip around your town. The audible cheers and connections made while exploring the local firehouse, library, and police station are experiences your students will truly love, leveraging the power of community for deep learning.

Note: The 2024 Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship applications are open until January 7, 2024—I encourage all pre-K through 12 educators, whether in formal or informal settings, to seriously consider applying.

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  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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