Immersive VR educates students about bushfires

Tuesday, 26 April, 2022

Immersive VR educates students about bushfires

Learning how to survive in emergencies such as bushfires is becoming more important than ever.

A new virtual reality (VR) experience developed by the University of South Australia is educating children about bushfires and helping them learn how to be safer in a bushfire incident.

Focusing on children aged 10–12 years, the VR experience presents a scenario where children are tasked to look after a friend’s dog just before a fire event begins to unfold. They participate in a series of problem-solving activities to help save and protect themselves and the dog.

Published in the Journal of Educational Computing, the research demonstrates how immersive VR experiences can deliver significant positive learning outcomes for primary children, independent of their gender, background knowledge or perceived ability to respond to bushfire hazards.

The findings showed that more than 80% of children agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident to calmly evaluate the options and make wise decisions to protect themselves from a bushfire. This is especially significant considering that 91% of participants originally lacked any knowledge of fires, and that 67% had said that they were too young to make safety decisions in a fire.

The project was part of Safa Molan’s PhD project. Her supervisor and fellow researcher, UniSA’s Professor Delene Weber, said immersive VR experiences have great potential to engage, educate and empower younger generations.

“VR has enormous potential to teach children about emergencies. As digital natives, they are engaged by technology, so when it’s immersive — as it is with VR — they can experience events realistically, yet within safe parameters,” Weber said.

“Well-designed VR can provide an opportunity for children to apply newly acquired knowledge, reinforce their learnt concepts and enable immediate feedback — all incredibly valuable learning tools.

“In this scenario, we applied best practice in terms of VR and educational design, showing how VR can achieve higher order learning skills such as analysis and application of information to a new situation. And we tested the effectiveness on one of the most vulnerable groups — children.

“Because children have fewer life experiences to build resilience, aren’t as physically strong and are less likely to have learned much about bushfire safety, they’re often most at risk. Yet the capacity for children to contribute to bushfire safety at their household level should not be underestimated.

“Children do not need to be passive victims of disasters and with purpose-built virtual reality experiences such as these, we can help empower children to understand the risks but realise they can help.”

Weber said immersive VR technology could potentially be used for other disaster scenarios such as floods or war environments.

“Building resilience before a traumatic event occurs is invaluable, which is where VR can help.

“VR is empowering children to understand how they can control aspects within a disaster or can cope by themselves, and it helps them build their confidence so that they can contribute positively rather than being afraid.

“This technology could easily be applied to other disasters such as floods and wars — which is particularly pertinent now with extreme floods still affecting New South Wales and Queensland, and the atrocities of war occurring in Ukraine.

“There is certainly no reason you wouldn’t get the same positive results when focused on different traumatic events — although the more predictable the processes are, the easier it would be for designers to create a relevant scenario.”

Image credit: © Bednarek

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