Could VR Stop Climate Change in Its Tracks? An Interview With VR Advocate, Conan Martinez

By Aaliyah-Marie Garner, age 12 and IndyKids staff

Imagine this: You’re deep in a tropical rainforest, witnessing its beauty and splendor. You see snakes. You hear monkeys in the trees above you. But here’s the catch: You’re not actually there. Instead, what you’re witnessing is made possible by virtual reality. Known as VR for short, it’s a technology that allows you to engage in the experience through a computer-simulated environment. 

By comparing test scores, researchers conducting the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, found that student knowledge of ocean acidification increased by almost 150% and was retained after several weeks.

Using VR in classrooms might be commonplace in just a few years. Technology like this can allow students to explore the deepest regions of our planet, or even to perform dangerous experiments in their science classes. Using VR could enable kids to be more creative, think outside of the box and, ultimately, become more knowledgeable about our world. Researchers at Stanford University created a virtual simulation which allows students to observe underwater ecosystems and see firsthand how our CO2 emissions will affect coral reefs over the course of the next 100 years. By comparing test scores, the researchers found that the simulation, known as the Stanford Ocean Acidification Experience, increased student knowledge of ocean acidification by almost 150% and was retained after several weeks.

Some argue that using VR in classrooms could reduce the amount of human interaction students experience in school. There are fears that extending the use of this technology may worsen or create addictions to things like VR and videogames, and result in kids spending less time outdoors. But for now the biggest hurdle seems to be how expensive VR is. Currently, only a few schools around the country could afford to introduce this to their classrooms, leaving those in low-income schools or districts at a disadvantage until it becomes more accessible. However, as the technology becomes more widely used, and the market more competitive, the playing field could eventually become more equal. But this would likely take many years.  

Using VR technology in classrooms could help improve empathy and allow students to fully understand the consequences of climate change by witnessing it in action. It could deepen our connection to and understanding of our environment, which could ultimately create more environmentally conscious societies.

VR in education advocate and teacher, Conan Martinez (and Pluto!)

Conan Martinez is an English teacher at Kings Valley Academy II in Tulare, Calif. He is also a current student at the University of Wyoming, where he is working on his MS in Learning, Design and Technology. 

Aaliyah: Why do you want to introduce virtual reality to your classroom?

Mr. Martinez: I want to introduce VR into the classroom because I think that it will be a big part of our future. We need to learn how to use these tools in school so that we can be prepared for that world. Imagine never using a Chromebook or laptop or cellphone until after you graduated high school! We want to be prepared. 

Aaliyah: Why do you feel like using VR will both assist you as a teacher and help your students learn?

Mr. Martinez: One of the hardest parts about being a teacher is getting students to pay attention, so we’re always working on making things interesting. VR could help support my English class by taking us on a virtual field trip to the place where our book takes place. In science, we could explore the inside of an atom. History teachers could show you Rome, and music teachers could take you to concerts from the 1700s.

Aaliyah: How would you measure the benefits of VR?

Mr. Martinez: This is boring, but I’ll be collecting data. I will ask students questions before lessons and after. Then I’ll compare test scores and skill levels from before and after introducing VR. I’ll repeat this until I have enough information to measure if VR benefited my students and learn how I can improve on it. The most important things I’ll be looking for: Did VR make them care about learning more? And, did they actually learn better than if they didn’t use VR?

Aaliyah: VR technology is very expensive. How do you think all students and schools will be able to afford it? How can schools make sure that VR isn’t only accessible to students with lots of money?

“Technology is now being recognized as a right, not just a privilege. As VR becomes more common, the technology will become more affordable.”

Conan Martinez

Mr. Martinez: Let’s take Chromebooks as an example. Back when I was your age, we had one room on the other side of the school that had a few computers. We’d go there whenever we had a big project to do. These days, more and more campuses are able to provide each of their students with their own Chromebook. So what changed? Technology is now being recognized as a right, not just a privilege. As VR becomes more common, the technology will become more affordable.

I am always thinking about equity, meaning every student should get the tools and support they need to support their education. There will always be schools that just have better, more expensive things. But there are teachers all around the country working on building up VR. We are working on funding. We are talking to principals and parents and whoever will listen. Teachers and students like you are working hard to learn how beneficial this technology can be, and when our voices get loud enough, we’ll see this fancy new tool in classrooms all over. 

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