Virtual reality for education: an immersive trip into the Andean Tropical Mountain Forests

Submitted by Christina Daszkiewicz | published 9th Nov 2020 | last updated 19th Nov 2020
National Sanctuary of Ampay

National Sanctuary of Ampay by Nicolas Villaume. Andean Forests Programme

Introduction

The tropical mountain forests of the Andes are fragile ecosystems that contain a biological diversity characterized by its high degree of uniqueness and rarity. These ecosystems are seriously threatened throughout their distribution area, even though our dependence on them is really significant.

Its vulnerability to climate change and the dynamics of land cover and land-use changes, including fires, have caused its reduction in recent years. For this reason, it is of vital importance to promote its conservation, restoration, and sustainable use. It is also essential to make its immense value visible, especially to the urban population who feels far away from them, and does not demand action from their governments in favour of their conservation.

Tools which allow reducing the distance between the Andean forests landscapes and urban population can play a role in bridging this gap. The Andean Forests Platform uses virtual reality to offer online tours of parts of the Andean forests in Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. The objective of this article is to present the Andean Forests Platform, and to discover its potential as an educational resource for both schools and universities.

The Andean Forests Platform

Andean Forests is a virtual reality platform allowing a tour of 14 sites in Andean forest landscapes in four countries of South America: Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

The platform is designed based on 360° high definition photographs. The images can be enjoyed through a PC, a laptop or a mobile phone. However, the use of a headset, VR lens, or 3D casque allows a totally immersive experience, accompanied by sounds of the forest. No apps to download are required, it is as easy as scanning a QR code. This is fundamental for the education reach and school usage that we are promoting with this project.

The actual content is divided in two main categories: 

  • the static content describing the mechanisms of the Andes biosphere, its forests, the way it works. This part has been built by experts and biologists from Peru from the Bosques Andinos Programme. It helps setting up the overall background for teachers and educators. It also includes some important specific reports and additional resources to download. 
  • the interactive content which composes the VR scenes with all the multimedia elements, including pop up photo galleries, spatial sound design, interviews. The viewer decides where to go, what to see next, according to his own path of exploration (see screenshot below).   

Screenshot of the Andean Forests Platform during a virtual visit of the Rotonccocha lake in Peru.

 

Use of the Andean Forests platform in the classroom

It is a powerful tool for teaching, mainly due to its ability to provide multisensory immersive environments. Here are two experiences of the platform in an educational context from an ecology course in Lima and a Botany course in Medellín.

The experience of the Ecology course from Lima

In 2019, Prof. Sandro Makowski (professor at the PUCP in Lima) incorporated the use of the platform in two practical lessons in his Ecology course, This course does not have field trips, making the theoretical concepts on climate change and Andean ecosystems very abstract. In the computer rooms, students solved a questionnaire and worked on presentations based on virtual visits of sites in Peru: Ampay National Sanctuary, Rontococcha Lagoon, and the Kiuñalla forests. The final result was positive as the platform allowed the students to explore the territory and its various ecosystems and generated in them a feeling of pride and a bond with these fragile ecosystems that are so important to Peru.

Sandro collected some final quotes from the students, showing the educational potential of the platform:

  • “We liked the use of virtual reality to reinforce learning in an area that was totally unknown to us.”
  • “It allows us an approach and connection to these forests.”
  • “The platform is quite useful and realistic, as the images are of good quality and have accurate descriptions.”
  • “It has been a unique experience. It is interesting how we can see a place and learn without having to leave the place where we are.”

Student experiencing the Andean Forests Platform during the Ecology course.

 

The Botany course experience from Medellín

In the context of the pandemic, in March 2020, Prof. Ana María Benavides (Conservation Leader of the Medellín Botanical Garden and Professor at the EAFIT University) incorporated the use of the Andean Forests platform in her botany course. For a course like botany, field trips are essential. The platform supported the virtual travel of her students to various parts of the Andean region and learning of the varieties of plants that exist. Thus, she was able to work on the description of the Intimpa tree in the Ampay National Sanctuary in Peru or the Araucaria in the Tolhuaca National Park in Chile. Although the platform does not replace a field trip, the Andean Forests platform allows to understand a lot of ecological processes, and above all, captivates students.

Even though these forests are so close to them, many of Medellín inhabitants do not know them. This tool allows an immersion in the forests and paramo of Colombia, thus valuing the ecosystem services provided to the city of Medellín.

Next steps

The platform aims to expand in the South American region by joining forces with different partners and organizations working in forest conservation, and with UNESCO through its Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Programme, starting with Peru. It also seeks to work with Biosphere Reserves with Andean forests such as the Yungas of the eastern slope and the relict Andean forests of the western slope of the Andes, of the latter only approximately 270,000 hectares remain in Peru.

Further resources