Wednesday, August 10, 2022
Students at DC Virgo Preparatory Academy participated in a summer STEM learning experience using virtual reality to explore sea turtle rescue and conservation, thanks to a special group of UNCW research students and nearly $1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.
“This is exactly the type of work that UNCW does so well,” said UNCW Professor Dr. Nathan Grove, referring to the NSF-funded UNCW Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. Grove is also the director of the university’s Center for the Support of Undergraduate Research and Fellowshipswhich oversees the REU program.
REU provides undergraduate students, especially underrepresented groups and veterans, applied learning opportunities to learn about research and hone their skills to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
“The entire purpose and budget of REU is to support these students in their interests and help them eventually become STEM professionals,” Grove said. “Whether working in park service, pharmaceuticals or as doctors, it’s all about training the next generation of professionals and doing it in a way that helps diversify the population.”
REU students work for 10 weeks in the summer with faculty mentors and engage in a variety of hands-on research and professional development opportunities, including applying what they have learned to inspire local elementary and middle school students.
“The great thing about REU is you have undergraduates involved in research under the guidance of a faculty mentor, and then they become mentors themselves, learning to communicate science and to build bonds with children who may have been just like them 10 years ago,” said James Stocker, a Watson College of Education associate professor who was heavily involved in leading the REU marine science students this summer.
Using a two-year grant provided through NSF’s Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers, Stocker’s REU mentees joined an ongoing project that is using virtual reality to create an elementary and middle school curriculum on the life cycle of the loggerhead sea turtle. They spent several weeks developing lesson plans and practicing how to communicate their research to a young audience.
For two days, the UNCW students worked directly in the classroom with third, fourth and fifth graders, teaching them how to measure sea turtles and collect data. They also taught them about emergency sea turtle rescue and preserve nests. On day three, the young students got to apply what they had learned using virtual reality goggles and handsets.
“The kids were very excited to try the VR headsets and the vast majority did not want to take them off,” said Blake Blackport, a UNCW graduate student leading the team.
Research shows that most students – especially underrepresented groups – tend to lose interest in STEM subjects around middle school. Stocker said the sea turtle project, like other NSF-funded iTEST projects, will help educators find ways to stimulate young students to be interested in science, technology, engineering or math and keep those going interests.
“An important part to this particular REU project is paying it forward,” said Dr. Laura Jennings, assistant principal at DC Virgo Preparatory Academy. “It’s about giving back and learning how to mentor and explain science to elementary students. Kids look up to undergraduates who are going into STEM careers. We hope the young students can visualize themselves in the future doing the same.”
— Krissy Vick