This article is cross-posted on Environmental Leader.
In my recent article, The Promise of Sustainability Education, I discussed the importance of introducing whole systems thinking and environmental sustainability into the US educational system. There are a variety of organizations using a range of methods to bring sustainability pedagogy into today’s schools. In this interview, David Miller from Enclave Harbour discusses the role virtual worlds can play in the transition to sustainability education.
MC: How long have you been developing virtual worlds and when did you get the idea to create Enclave Harbour?
DM: I started working in virtual worlds at the end of 2006 when Second Life was all the frenzy in the media. I had been doing Blender 3D, an open source 3D animation program, as a hobby and saw the opportunity to make buildings that could be used by others. My first project was an art gallery for a Norwegian artist that was having a real life art reception and wanted it mirrored in Second Life.
I was interested in using Second Life for teaching science but it was far too expensive and Second Life does not allow anyone under 16 years of age to enter. However, I did use Second Life to teach eLearning developers how to “film” 3D animation, much like you would do with the much harder to learn Blender 3D.
MC: What are the advantages of teaching earth science “in world”?
DM: Immersion and engagement. The concepts I have students explore in these virtual science field trips have traditionally been taught with illustrations or photographs in a text book. If you are lucky, then maybe you can see a video or even a 3D projector image. All we are doing with Enclave Harbour is taking that illustration or photo and making it a 3D model that a student can walk around in.
It’s more fun to have an avatar and walk around a desalination plant or a landfill then to read about it. Kids love to explore, even if it is just virtually. Most kids won’t ever participate in a field trip to hydro-electric plant or calculate the kinetic energy of a toilet they flush atop of the world’s tallest building as captured by a wastewater turbine.
You can also teach the fantastical. We have a space station that teaches closed-circuit systems like the water cycle and the carbon cycle and we also have a spaceship that serves as a way to discuss future energy possibilities – those topics that are just fun to explore.
“In-world” activities can also be enjoyed by those at brick-and-mortar schools, virtual schools, and home schools.
MC: Was it a conscious choice to use a variety of alternative energy solutions within Enclave Harbour?
DM: We teach Environmental Science topics using Life, Earth, and Physical Science principles taken from the National Science Education Standards (NSES) and from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). In this mix it seems appropriate to teach all forms of energy being used. We teach science and not policy and in this respect there is no right or wrong energy.
However, since we do this with an eye towards closing the gender gap in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), we do present activities designed in a way that students do their own research on current events and can write papers on differing topics. The goal is for them to uncover various sides of issues and to question assumptions presented by the media. They will make up their own minds about energy solutions and be better equipped to make sound decisions regarding them as they become older.
MC: How can youth best be educated on sustainability?
DM: I think that today’s youth is on the verge of this question becoming a moot one for them. We have seen significant changes in the last five years in the automobile industry and recent incentives, such as San Francisco allowing the free charging of electric cars, that are now making these things a day-to-day reality and not simply novel.
I believe that science literacy can help us become sustainable in our lives and our decisions. Science literacy in the US is lower than in many countries and we are now aware of this. Science needs to be restored to its former glory of the days when dreaming of space travel was something many kids did. Today we have no planned manned missions and the lunar walk is from a time way before today’s kids were born. The romantic side of science is not as bright as it could be.
Personally, I blame standardized testing to an extent because it removes some of the reward for passionate science teachers who want to teach but get ranked on their ability to have students memorize facts. Rote memorization might look good for test results but we can see that this does not inspire great science nor does it allow the US to lead the world in science innovation.
I taught three years at the secondary level and seven at college but I would not teach secondary science unless it was at a very progressive school that valued enthusiasm, passion, and real life experience.
MC: What is the most important actionable item you would like readers to take away?
DM: Question science that you hear in the media. It is sometimes pseudo-science presented to further a political agenda that may sound plausible but falls apart upon cursory inspection.
Science is all around us, it’s in your cell phone, the water you drink, the transportation you use, and science is magical and sometimes invisible. From pollination to hurricanes to sail boats, wind is an important “thing” that we have studied and understand very well but have you ever actually seen the wind?