This post was co-written by National Geographic Explorer Dr. Jennifer Adler and academic instructional coach Ashleigh Glickley.
It was 9 a.m., and the Florida summer sun had already melted my ChapStick. The air temperature was almost 100°F (38ºC), the parking lot at Blue Heron Bridge was almost full, and I almost threw the 360-degree camera into the ocean, where I’d never have to see it again. At least it would cool off in the water; it was also overheating in the sweltering southern summer.
The reason we battled the Florida heat last July was to capture 360 videos that immerse the next generation in aquatic science and allow them to experience fieldwork alongside female scientists working underwater. As someone who grew up in and around the ocean, I know firsthand the power of diving in headfirst with a mask and snorkel—the experience was in part what inspired me to study marine biology and ecology all the way through my PhD. Many students don’t have this opportunity, but exploring 360 videos may be the next closest thing to immersing oneself in the sea. The goal of the videos is to spark interest in marine sciences and ocean ecosystems, especially for students who may not generally have access to the ocean.
Even if students have swum in the ocean, experiencing underwater research with scientists is incredibly rare. Accessing the ocean can be difficult or impossible for many students, and there is often a lot of specialized free dive or scuba dive training required to do the fieldwork. This makes the immersivity of 360 video a valuable solution.
Virtual reality (VR), including 360 video, is not a replacement for an experience but rather a stand-in when a real-world experience isn’t possible. In a 2009 paper in Science, Chris Dede found that VR is a particularly effective tool for students who could never imagine themselves doing science or who normally don’t perform as well in the classroom.
Capturing 360 underwater video presents many challenges. Last summer, the acrylic dome we used to make sure the stitching worked correctly underwater kept fogging and also kept us from accessing all the controls. Once we pressed record and placed the camera in the airtight bubble, which was about the size of a basketball, the camera would record continuously for eight minutes then run out of battery. With the newly released 360bubble DEEP camera housing, it’s possible to access all the buttons, which is a huge relief.
Thankfully, Dr. Chelsea Bennice, a marine ecologist at Florida Atlantic University, was game for a three-hour dive to try to capture some 360 footage. She showed up with all of her coolest science tools, including a boogie board with mermaid scales that she retrofitted to be a floating lab, a camera called the OMG (Octopus Monitoring Gadget), her quadrats, yet another underwater camera, and what looked like a mini laundry basket for catching octopuses. We shared five cameras between four people, and despite all the challenges, we pulled it off!
Our second day of filming, in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea with Beatriz Chachamovits, went more smoothly, after we fine-tuned the weights on the camera and kept it cool before entering the water. Beatriz is an environmental artist focused on coral reefs.
In the video below, you can join Beatriz in her studio and underwater to learn about how she creates sculptures out of clay to communicate about science and our threatened coral reefs. In the 360 video, you also learn about her journey as an environmental artist, which started in Brazil and brought her to Miami.
Creating these videos was only the beginning. To achieve the goal of immersing the next generation in aquatic science, we partnered with Ashleigh Glickley, an academic instructional coach at a Spanish immersion school in Louisville, Kentucky, to get fifth-grade students virtually in the water and learning alongside the scientists.
Bringing the Ocean to the Classroom
I received a phone call early in the school year from Ashley Lamb-Sinclair, a National Geographic Explorer, asking if students at our school would be interested in teaming with a group of female scientists to learn about ocean conservation. Before she could finish the sentence, I said “send me the link.” This was exactly the type of experience we were looking for as we worked to adopt a school-wide Explorer Mindset at Hawthorne Elementary.
In collaboration with two fifth-grade teachers, Kelly McNerney and Kelly Conkling, I planned a unit on the work of each scientist and the 360 videos. We began by sparking students’ curiosity and encouraging them to make observations about the ocean. Knowing that students had already expressed interest in this topic but that building upon their prior knowledge would be an essential step in interacting with the research of the scientists, we asked them to share their experiences with the ocean through drawing a picture or writing about a visit to the ocean. This activity showed us that students’ backgrounds ranged from yearly visits to the ocean on vacation to never having seen it before. Next, we set the stage to show how scientists document ocean life by allowing students to observe different types of photographic equipment, including old film cameras they thought were ancient, and interact with the wordless children’s book Flotsam by David Wiesner. The book illustrates the experience of a boy who happens upon a camera floating in the ocean and develops the film, unlocking a world of underwater adventure.
With the students’ curiosity sparked, we channeled their sense of responsibility by having them make observations and communicate directly with the scientists. Students collaborated to view Dr. Adler’s photographs online and in an article she wrote and photographed documenting female sponge farmers in Zanzibar. They explored the interactions of octopuses living in the same habitat through Dr. Bennice’s website OctoNation and her 360 video. They also explored the intricacies of Beatriz Chachamovits’s artwork and witnessed her in action in her 360 video.
The students were enthralled by the 360 videos, often reaching over to tell a friend to look up or down and zoom in or out on particular scenes in the water. The immersive experience of being underwater was priceless, particularly for those students who had never seen the ocean. As they interacted with each resource, students brainstormed questions they would later ask the scientists directly during Zoom calls that took place throughout the unit.
The students’ engagement with the 360 videos and direct interaction with the scientists was one of the most impactful experiences I have seen as an educator. Not only were the students inspired by the work each scientist was doing; they also felt a personal connection to them, allowing them to envision themselves doing that type of work some day.
Finally, it was time to empower our students to make a change by collaborating and problem-solving. We gave students the option to complete one of three projects to share what they had learned. Based on their interests, students formed groups and went to work to inform others about the impact of climate change on the habitats of octopuses, solutions to human-induced damage to coral reefs, and inventions that could be used to protect ocean life.
We hope these videos help inspire the next generation of female scientists to think outside the box for their careers and perhaps study things under the sea. As a scientist with a PhD in ecology who now works as a freelance photojournalist telling stories about science and conservation, I am especially interested in these creative and “alternative” careers. Finding educators like Ashleigh who are willing to take the time to create lesson plans and curricula that tie in these immersive materials and bring them to their students is life-changing and has led to other collaborations, through which we plan to bring more 360 video to classrooms all over the country.
During June, the National Geographic Society is celebrating our Explorers, who are exceptional individuals in their fields whom we fund and support to illuminate and protect our world through their work in science, exploration, education, and storytelling. Check back throughout the month for more stories from our Explorer community.
This post references an IF/THEN® She Can Change The World Project, made possible with the support of Lyda Hill Philanthropies as part of the AAAS IF/THEN® Ambassadors Program.
National Geographic Explorer Dr. Jennifer Adler is a conservation photographer and underwater photojournalist. Her work is informed by her scientific background, and she uses her imagery to communicate about science and conservation. She has a degree in marine biology from Brown University and a PhD in interdisciplinary ecology from the University of Florida. She specializes in underwater photography and is a trained free diver and cave diver. An ongoing theme in her work is the connection between people and water in a changing climate. Her grant-funded and assignment work has taken her all over the world to document science and conservation for The Nature Conservancy, National Geographic, HuffPost, Vox, and the International Women’s Media Foundation.
Ashleigh Glickley is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and National Board Certified Teacher with 15 years of experience working in dual-language programs. She is passionate about developing equitable and engaging learning experiences for all students. She specializes in project-based learning and is part of the National Faculty of PBLWorks.
The featured image shows Diving and Boating Safety Officer Lizzie McNamee (left) and Dr. Chelsea Bennice (right) standing in the ocean with their research equipment after a long morning underwater studying octopuses (Dr. Jennifer Adler)
Photos courtesy of Dr. Jennifer Adler, unless otherwise noted