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Virtual reality program expanding at Guana to reach more students

The goal is to create a memorable experience that helps the planet, sparks interest and levels the playing field in education.

It's not teleportation but for some children, it may just be the next best thing.

A program at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in St. Augustine connects technology and nature through virtual reality. It's been so popular that it's expanding!

Students can be anywhere, put on the headset, and see what they would be seeing if they were at the estuary on the reserve.

Expanding the virtual reality (VR) program means reaching more kids, especially ones in low-income schools that may not be able to take a field trip. This includes students like the ones from the 130 Title 1 schools in Duval County.

"It is kind of a dream come true," said Gabriela Canas, who works at Guana and helped develop the VR. She doesn't remember taking many field trips as a kid. "I didn't even know this place existed until I was in college so being able to take this ecosystem to students who have no clue that it exists and they live 20 minutes away from it."

VR headsets show dozens of species in the estuary and teach about them. In VR, you can look at a number of informational data to teach about a certain species.

"[Students] get to learn how important this ecosystem is because it really is important," said Josephine Spearman, GTM Research Rserve education coordinator. "It helps protect us from hurricanes, it helps filter the water before it goes to the open, it's a nursery for baby animals, it's very, very important. It would help them to be conservation-minded, that they would actually want to protect this area."

Canas and Spearman say students get excited about learning this way.

"Really trying to introduce students to how humans can impact these systems," said Canas. "The things we do in our daily lives can affect systems like this even if you live kind of far away from it."

The goal is to create a memorable experience that helps the planet, sparks an interest and levels the playing field in education.

"They say a picture's worth a thousand words. Well, an experience is priceless," Canas said. "Just getting kids to have a memorable experience and plug in some learning with that, I think it's a really powerful tool."

They are now working with the community on adapting the VR program for students with autism. They're also trying to expand it to include other habitats besides just the estuary.

Learn more about the estuary here.