AGU Education Section News

2019 AGU OSPA Winner Uses Virtual Reality to Help the Public Explore and Connect with Glacial Landscapes from Anywhere

By Stacie Bender posted 04-21-2020 20:15


Successful communication of scientific research and why it’s important means that someone besides the scientist truly connects with that research and its topic. The “connection” may be made through the physical senses, or it may be made through excitement and emotion, or all of the above. That “someone” is often a person outside of technical geosciences, someone who crosses paths with a successful science communicator with the right tool, at the right time.  

As a scientist with education and outreach job duties, Kira Harris uses the “Virtual Ice Explorer” (VIE) tool to communicate and connect with people of all types and help audiences connect with glacial landscapes that may be incredibly distant from their homes.  Through a presentation titled “Virtual Reality Exploration of Earth's Cryosphere” at the 2019 AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco, CA, Kira shared ways in which virtual reality technology can be used to explore and connect people to far-away glacial landscapes.  For Kira’s successful science communication and education work, Kira won a 2019 Outstanding Student Paper Award (OSPA) in the AGU Education Section.  

2019 AGU Education Section OSPA Winner Kira Harris, with virtual reality headset (Photo Credit: K. Harris)
2019 AGU Education Section OSPA Winner Kira Harris, with
virtual reality headset (Photo Credit: K. Harris)

Glacial landscapes are incredibly sensitive to and impacted by humans through climate change, even though these regions are located far away from most people’s homes.  Difficulty in access to these regions (due to distance, cost, dedicated time, abilities, etc.) will prevent most of the public from visiting these landscapes firsthand to study, understand, see, hear, or touch them.  Yet, people around the world are impacted by changes in these distant landscapes through sea-level rise and changing precipitation patterns. The need for people to connect with and understand glacial landscapes is still incredibly important, and such connections can still be forged, despite great distances!

Kira and colleagues in earth sciences, education, and outreach at the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at The Ohio State University help make these connections happen through the VIE tool and its virtual reality component.  Such exciting exploratory and immersive virtual experiences allow people to experience and connect with the landscapes, even if that experience isn’t firsthand. The virtual reality component of the VIE tool brings glacial landscapes to people, and people to glacial landscapes.  It goes both ways!

Participants using the “Virtual Ice Explorer” tool to virtually visit glacial landscapes in Earth’s cryosphere (Photo Credit: K. Harris)
Participants using the “Virtual Ice Explorer” tool to virtually visit
glacial landscapes in Earth’s cryosphere (Photo Credit: K. Harris)

As part of Kira’s 2019 Fall Meeting presentation, Kira led interactive demonstrations with attendees of all ages. Adults and young students both reacted with excitement to virtual reality scenes from places like Huascarán, Peru. Their enthusiasm carried over into thoughts of how they might adapt such technology to their own fields, beyond cryospheric science, forging immediate cross-discipline connections through virtual reality technology.

Post-Fall Meeting, Kira noted that scientific research should be considered complete and with purpose once it has been successfully communicated to the public, especially those who may be directly affected by it.  Kira encourages fellow science communicators to consider how they would discuss their research with a wide range of audiences, and then practice communicating at many types of events beyond technical scientific conferences.  Interaction with multiple audience types has allowed Kira to tailor the level of detail to present and the vocabulary of the presentation to individual audiences, and ultimately, to better connect with people of all types as they connect virtually with distant glacial landscapes like those in Peru.

Two of the Virtual Ice Explorer tours are publicly available at  Kira and the VIE team are also in the process of building additional tours.