DiVR 360: bringing scientific scuba diving into the classroom


Most people will not have the opportunity to experience the vastness of life under the ocean. They won’t have the opportunity to don a wetsuit so thick they can’t bend their arms just to stay warm in the freezing Pacific. They won’t feel the weight of an oxygen tank on their backs or the buoyancy control device that keeps them from sinking directly onto sandy ground.

They won’t get on a boat, review their safety plan with a dive buddy, and find a spot off shore to anchor. They won’t be able to dive underwater while breathing through a mask to see the coral reefs, kelp forests, rocks and sand that litter the ocean floor. They won’t see sea urchins attached to rocks or any fish swimming beside them.

Scuba diving is difficult; it requires extensive training, detailed safety precautions, and is really only available to people who live nearby or can afford 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 only take place on land.

However, individuals in Cal Poly’s marine science program seek 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 do scientific diving.

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

“The DiVR 360 project is an effort for my lab to do more than 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 discover the ocean through interactive videos on their phones or computers.

The process of creating the VR science experiment videos and lesson plan for the class required hard work from White and his team.

White oversaw and managed the project, and bioscience senior Meg Beymer, Cal Poly graduate 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 it all, so it looks like a great opportunity.

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

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 to work on this project, and Beymer, Keller, and Verburg were all certified in Cal Poly’s scuba diving course. The class––Scientific Diving Course (MSCI 410)––runs during the summer and admits only eight students per year.

“I really wanted to go scuba diving,” Beymer said. “It’s a lab that does that and I’m also very interested in raising awareness of marine science. I used to do a lot of volunteer work at the aquarium and it’s 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-type cameras placed in large transparent domes and it is attached to a long stick, so that divers do not accidentally film themselves. Then they took the underwater dive camera to several different locations. They filmed under Cal Poly Pier and at Corallina Cove in Montana de Oro.

Both Beymer and White said the camera was a challenge to work with. Before the camera could be taken underwater, several steps had to be taken to ensure the safety of the camera. The camera had to be housed in a waterproof case; any slight problem with this case could cause major problems.

“If you seal the camera and you only have one human hair that gets into the o-ring of the seal, it could create a leak, then the camera will absorb water and it will ruin the lenses and the cameras inside,” White said.

The case also had to be pressure tested so it wouldn’t break in the ocean. Underwater, divers had to be careful not to scratch the camera with their scuba gear or by bumping it against rocks and reefs underwater.

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

The divers filmed three videos: an exploration video and two scientific 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 this habitat, such as large purple starfish and sea urchins that live on the pilings of the pier.

They also traveled 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 life visible above the sand. They also laid a 100-meter tape measure on the seabed and filmed along it, showing the comparisons between each point.

The DiVR 360 team plans to test the project in a seventh grade classroom at Laguna Middle School 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 worked and what didn’t.

Divers hope students can get a feel for what real marine scientists do underwater. With the Exploratory Pier video, they’ll learn how to count organisms—–starfish, sea urchins, and anemones—and compare those numbers to the depth of the pier.

Sea slug with lemon and sea urchins underwater. Meg Beymer | Courtesy

“They’re basically going to learn to be scientists,” Beymer said. “They have to make their own assumptions and then they explore the underwater environment. In fact, they collect the data with us.

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

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

VR lessons aren’t typically used to teach science to students in a classroom setting, but since students can’t be taken underwater, this project aims to change the way they learn science.

“I think it’s important to stimulate interest in science, marine science and the environment — to encourage children to do something school-related,” Keller said. “Because I think it’s a little more interesting than some of your mundane lectures.”

The DiVR 360 project will teach the general college science curriculum and apply these concepts to marine science, so students can gain an understanding of the marine environment while gaining a comprehensive science education. Virtual reality opens up a whole new world for learning to experience.

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

Along with giving young students more tools to learn science concepts, the divers said they hoped to inspire a love of the ocean and sea life in the next generation of students.

“We would like students to take away an appreciation for the ocean in general and an appreciation for the fact that there are a multitude of diverse and crazy organisms under the surface of the water that most of us never see. . , never look at them, and yet they are there,” White said.

Once the team irons out the issues, they said they hope to implement it in schools across the United States and with students who have never seen the ocean before.

“People growing up inland and less affluent, less privileged people might not have access to as many resources for scuba diving,” White said. “So it’s a way for them to start dipping their toes in the water and seeing what scuba diving is like.”

While the DiVR 360 project kicked off on the Central Coast, White plans to take the project to ocean environments around the world. He said he plans to implement the DiVR 360 project in Antarctica to film the clear waters under the ice for students to see here.

The implementation of the project in Antarctica is done in collaboration with Heather Liwanag, associate professor at Cal Poly, who studies seals. They plan to take him to Antarctica in about three years.

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

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


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