Meg, Maddie, Landon and Crow ready for a dive. Meg Beymer | Courtesy

Most people won’t get to experience the vastness of life under the ocean. They won’t get to experience pulling on a wetsuit so thick they can’t bend their arms just to stay warm in the freezing pacific. They won’t get to feel how heavy an oxygen tank is on their back nor the attached buoyancy control device, which keeps them from sinking straight to the sandy floor.

They won’t get on a boat, review their safety plan with a diving buddy and find a spot off the coast to anchor down. They won’t get to dive down under the water while breathing through a mask to see the coral reefs, kelp forests and rocks and sand that litter the ocean floor. They won’t get to see the sea urchins attached to the rocks or see any fish swim by them.

Scuba diving is difficult; it takes extensive training, has detailed safety measures, and is only really available to people who live near or have the means to travel to the coast. 

Scientific diving requires an even higher level of certification than just normal vacation scuba diving. For the majority of people, science and learning takes place solely on land. 

However, individuals in Cal Poly’s marine science program are looking to change the way people learn about marine life and the ocean. They want to bring the ocean into the classroom and teach young students how to scientific scuba dive.  

DiVR 360 is a project started by Cal Poly associate professor Crow White. The project is a part of White’s larger marine science program called Dive Beneath the Surface. Dive Beneath the Surface focuses on marine science outreach and education in elementary, middle and high schools.

“The DiVR 360 project is an effort for my lab to do more than just scientific research,” White said. “[It will] also inspire the next generation of people to love the oceans and be interested in being scientists themselves.”

Using virtual reality, the project focuses on teaching middle school students how marine scientists conduct experiments underwater. 

Students will be able to experience what scientific scuba diving is like and how scientists learn about the ocean through interactive videos on their phones or computers. 

The process to create the virtual reality science experiment videos and the lesson plan for the classroom required an intense amount of work from White and his team. 

White oversaw and managed the project, and biological sciences senior Meg Beymer, Cal Poly alum Maddie Verburg and biochemistry senior Landon Keller all worked on the day-to-day operations of this project. 

“I’m really interested in science, science communication, marine science and education.” Keller said. “So [White’s project is] a perfect intersection of all that, so it sounds like a great opportunity.” 

Keller, Beymer and Verburg worked with computer engineering students and liberal studies students to develop the lesson plan and decide which experiments to conduct. 

Meg Beymer holding the 360 camera underwater. Meg Beymer | Courtesy

Last summer the three students and White dove in Montana De Oro and Avila Beach to create the 360 virtual reality videos that will be used in the classroom. 

Each student had to be certified in scientific diving in order to work on this project and Beymer, Keller and Verburg were all certified in Cal Poly’s scuba diving class. The class –– Scientific Diving Course (MSCI 410) –– is held over the summer and only admits eight students a year. 

“I really wanted to scuba dive,” Beymer said. “This is a lab that does that and I’m also really interested in marine science outreach. I used to volunteer at the aquarium a lot and it’s just incredibly fun.”

In order to film the videos, the divers used a 360 degree camera that filmed in all directions underwater. It is made up of three GoPro-like cameras placed in big clear domes and it’s attached to a long stick, so the divers wouldn’t accidentally film themselves. Then they took the camera scuba diving in several different places. They filmed under the Cal Poly pier and in Corallina Cove in Montana de Oro.

Beymer and White both said the camera was a challenge to work with. Before the camera could be taken underwater, several steps needed to be taken to keep the camera safe. The camera had to be housed in a waterproof casing; any slight issue with that casing could cause major problems.

“If you seal the camera and you have just one human hair that gets in the O-ring on the seal, that could create a leak and then the camera takes in water and that ruins the lenses and the cameras inside,” White said. 

The casing also needed to be tested for pressure so that it didn’t break while in the ocean. Underwater, the divers needed to be careful to not scratch the camera with their scuba gear or by knocking it against the rocks and reefs underwater. 

“It requires a lot of diligence and that’s something that the students working on this project have learned about and they’re outstanding with that,” White said. 

The divers filmed three videos: one exploratory video and two science experiment videos. 

The divers filmed at the Cal Poly pier in Avila for the exploratory video. In the video, they point out specific animals living in that habitat, like big purple sea stars and sea urchins that live on the pier pilings. 

They also went to Corallina Cove to film the two science experiment videos. They filmed two different environments underwater  — a rocky habitat with visible wildlife and a sandy habitat with no visible life on top of the sand. They also laid down a 100-meter measuring tape on the seafloor and filmed along it, showing the comparisons between each spot. 

The DiVR 360 team plans to test the project in a Laguna Middle School seventh grade classroom in the spring. The idea is that seventh grade teacher Lesley Salter will teach her students the two-day lesson plan and provide the team with feedback on what did and did not work. 

The divers hope students will be able to get a sense of what actual marine scientists do underwater. With the exploratory video on the pier, they’ll learn to count the organisms –– sea stars, sea urchins and anemones –– and compare those amounts to the depth of the pier. 

Lemon sea slug and sea urchins underwater. Meg Beymer | Courtesy

“They’ll basically learn how to be scientists,” Beymer said. “They have to make their own hypotheses and then they explore the underwater environment. They actually collect the data with us.”

The class will then be split into two groups: one group will observe wildlife in the first environment and the other will do the same in the second environment. Afterward, they will share their data and conclusions with each other.   

“It was really important to me to teach them science communication.” Beymer said. “They’re learning not only from doing their own data, but also learning how to present and how to learn from each other.” 

Virtual reality lessons are not typically used to teach students about science in a classroom, but since students can’t be brought underwater, this project aims to change the way they learn science. 

“I think it’s important just to spur interest in science and in marine science and the environment –– just get kids excited about doing something school related,” Keller said. “Because I think it’s a little more interesting than some of your run-of-the-mill lectures.” 

The DiVR 360 project will teach the general middle school science curriculum and apply those concepts to marine science, so students can gain an understanding of the marine environment while still gaining a well-rounded science education. Virtual reality opens a whole new world for learning how to experiment. 

“I think that education is really important and I just remember that when I was in middle school and high school, a lot of the labs are very cut and dry,” Beymer said. “It was just really important to me for this project to change that up a little bit and teach them how real science actually works.” 

In addition to giving young students more tools to learn science concepts, the divers said they hope to inspire a love of the ocean and marine life in the next generation of students. 

“We would love for the students to get out of this an appreciation for the ocean in general and an appreciation for the fact that there is a host of diversity and crazy looking organisms underneath the surface of the water that most of us never get to see, never look at, and yet, they’re right there,” White said.  

Once the team has worked out the issues, they said they hope to implement it in schools across the U.S. and to students who have never seen the ocean before.  

“People who are growing up inland and people who are not as well off, not as privileged, might not have access to as many resources for going scuba diving,” White said. “So this is a way for them to start to dip their toe in the water and see what it’s actually like scuba diving.”

While the DiVR 360 project started on the Central Coast, White has plans to bring the project to ocean environments around the world. He said he is planning to implement the DiVR 360 project in Antarctica to film the clear waters under the ice for students to view back here. 

The implementation of the project in Antarctica is in collaboration with Cal Poly associate professor Heather Liwanag who studies seals. They are planning on taking it to Antarctica in about three years.

But for now, students will be learning about the ocean close to home. The team said that generating an appreciation for the ocean is important in its protection. 

“I think environmentalism in general is pretty important. I think that starts with enthusiasm about the environment, whether that’s appreciation or recognition of its importance to our functions,” Keller said. “I think that starts back when you’re a kid.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *