Life Science Video Conferencing Brings Nature into Schools

Life science video conferencing will make use of VR.

There’s a heart-warming moment in the BBC’s Blue Planet documentary series where world-renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough drops the façade of scientific professionalism and shows pure, child-like enthusiasm.

As an enormous blue whale breaches boatside and showers the host’s craft in water, Sir David turns to the camera in wild-haired excitement and exclaims joyously,

“The blue whale! The biggest animal that has ever lived on Earth!”

It’s the kind of moment of joy and awe that has endeared Sir David to viewers across the world, and a reminder that we should all take time to be overwhelmed by the beauty of our planet.

It is also the kind of awe-inspiring experience that wildlife conservationists are trying to deliver to students using life science video conferencing. By equipping researchers and conservationists with video conferencing equipment, the Ocean Wise organization is trying to bring the majesty of the natural world into the classrooms of our youth.

Interacting with Giants

Ocean Wise is a non-profit organization dedicated to using education to inspire ocean conservation. Late last year, it used its video conferencing prowess to bring students from around the globe to a virtual Ocean Heroes Boot Camp in New Orleans. The focus of that remote convention was the removal of plastic bags from our waterways, and it culminated in a presentation to the year’s G7 summit.

Currently, Ocean Wise is working with scientists and researchers aboard the One Ocean vessels in the Antarctic to beam them and their work into the classrooms of U.S. students. You can get a glimpse into this fascinating project in the 45-minute live video conversation below–skip ahead to the 12-minute mark to get an eye-to-eye close-up with a whale.

The quality of the live link speaks to the remoteness of the scientists’ location–apparently, it’s hard to good digital reception near the South Pole. Nonetheless, the students back on dry land were given a rare opportunity to see both the animals and the researchers in action, and to pose questions to the scientists as they watched the animals in the wild.

This particular research program is studying the underwater feeding and social behavior of marine mammals through the use of video and drones. Ocean Wise is hoping this kind of “see-it-and-be-it” experience will inspire young students to pursue careers in science and conservation, or at least be more mindful of their natural surroundings.  

It would be difficult to find a location more distant from the day-to-day lives of these students, and yet these kinds of experiences are becoming more and more commonplace in our schools.

Skype a Scientist and More

The modern classroom now extends all around the world. Microsoft’s Skype a Scientist initiative, for example, has so far linked more than 800 K-12 classrooms across 28 different countries and in almost every U.S. state with live scientific research projects in places just as inhospitable as the Antarctic. The project’s YouTube channel is filled with recordings of student/researcher interactions that cover a wide range of scientific studies, from astrobiology to biomechanics.

The highly accessible nature of the video conferencing technology needed to stage these live interactions means that these kinds of virtual field trips have become a viable alternative to the expensive real-world version.

The majority of U.S. schools now have broadband access powerful enough to make a video call, and the webcams and microphones that carry the two-way conversation cost only a few hundred dollars–if they’re not supplied for free by goodwill-hunting video vendors such as Microsoft and Zoom.

Video conferencing has become just another educational tool in today’s curriculum. And things are about to get even more immersive.

Life Science Video Conferencing Lessons

Video conferencing can take students anywhere in the world there’s a lesson to be learned. And soon it will allow them to become more than spectators at the fringes. Immersive technologies like virtual and augmented reality have the potential to let students actually walk in the footsteps of the researchers they currently only view through 2D screens.

As you can see below, augmented reality is already delivering some dramatic whale watching interactions.

It isn’t too ambitious to imagine that soon students will be able to put on headsets and wonder around the frozen grounds of Antarctica as scientists working there explain their latest observations. The visual and audio of a traditional video conference could be filled out with a computer overlay that removes the real-world classroom walls altogether. In its place could be a live stream from the onsite research center or a computer-generated simulation of related environments–perhaps students could lean over the side of the One Ocean boat and into an interactive ocean where touch-sensitive animals and landscape features rewarded their curiosity with scientific facts.

Video conferencing can currently perform wonders of transportation, but it will create even more inspirational “blue whale!” moments once it become an all-of-body–not just out-of-body–experience.

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