Taking the ocean into the classroom with NZ-VR

(Last Updated On: November 8, 2018)

The Sir Peter Blake Trust, in partnership with New Zealand Geographic, has unveiled ‘NZ-VR’ – an experimental and free learning programme that aims to connect students with the marine environment through virtual reality (VR).

Launching in early 2019, NZ-VR is a free initiative for schools that allows students to explore the wonder of what’s beneath the surface of our oceans through an underwater virtual reality (VR) experience.

Sir Peter Blake Trust CEO, James Gibson, says the programme brings to life Sir Peter Blake’s vision of “reaching every classroom” and allowing everyone to get up close and experience the environment so they will want to take care of it.

“The programme aims to connect thousands of young New Zealanders with the marine environment, most of whom have never experienced what’s under the surface of our ocean. Through virtual reality, we can take the ocean into the classroom.”

The Sir Peter Blake Trust’s objective from the NZ-VR project is to deliver an immersive experience to schools, so students can see both the rich biodiversity below the surface of New Zealand waters, as well as the damage that’s been done to the ecosystem. 

“Students can see what a pristine marine environment looks like, as well the damage that’s been done due to pollution, overfishing and invasive species. They’ll come away from this learning experience with actions they can take to protect the marine environment and hopefully gain a much deeper sense of kaitiakitanga,” said Gibson.

Environment message

The Sir Peter Blake Trust’s head of community engagement, Kelly Bleakley, whose primary focus is to get the programme into schools says they’ve struggled in the past to get any great reach with their environmental messaging.

“Delivering experiential learning at scale is traditionally very expensive. This technology is an awesome way to reach a large number of young people in an impactful way with a message that educates and inspires them to care for the environment.

“We’ve been trialling the content in a number of schools in Auckland this year, and students have been blown away by the footage and love the VR technology.”

Papatoetoe’s Aorere College is one such school and science teacher Aidan Kiely admits the ocean experience was incredible for both students and teachers. 

Opening up eyes

“It made the plight of our marine environments tangible in a way we’ve never experienced before, opening up our eyes to a whole new world. This meant the students were much more engaged in our follow-up discussion about human impacts on the environment, and they were passionate about making a difference. It made our Oceans unit live, without leaving South Auckland.”

The 360-degree video footage was filmed by New Zealand Geographic in several coastal locations from Three Kings in Northland to the outer Hauraki Gulf in Auckland.

Publisher James Frankham says his wish from this project is that every New Zealander will have an experience of the natural world that will change their lives. 

“I hope it changes hearts and minds, and leads to a sea change in people’s understanding of the natural world and their appreciation of it. Ocean conservation suffers from a massive image problem, because no one can see or easily experience something that’s covered up by 30 metres of salt water. Unless you experience something, how can you really care for it, when you don’t have the tools for empathy?”

Until now, Frankham says, the best way to generate that empathy for our ocean environment has been taking classrooms of kids to snorkel through marine reserves, like Goat Island north of Auckland, or through the media, with photographs and stories from the vast underwater realm.

“But a photograph is nowhere near as close to the experience you could have if you were out in the ocean. And virtual reality is now the best tool to recreate that experience. Nothing will ever replace a real-life experience, but it’s very hard for people to access the marine environment. Very few people have been underwater, and only a tiny fraction of those have been underwater in a pristine marine ecosystem. 

“VR allows people to get as close to a real experience as possible when a place is difficult to access.” 

Free to schools

The free programme will be available to primary, intermediate and secondary schools nationwide from early next year.  

Teachers will be able to sign up to two options. The first is for schools in Auckland, where a travelling educator will take classrooms through a one-hour roadshow session, allowing students to experience the VR through headsets and learn what they can do to help the marine environment. 

The second is for schools nationwide. The Trust is creating teaching resources to accompany the video content, in both the science and social studies curriculum. 

“Any teacher nationwide can pick up the lesson plans, access the videos, and use them to educate their students,” said Bleakley.

And not every student will need to put on a headset to see the underwater world come to life. The videos can be accessed through any internet-friendly devices that use ‘magic window’ mode. This allows viewers to move their tablet or mobile phone around to glide through the water with a 360-degree view. Chromebooks and desktop computers can also be used by clicking and dragging a mouse around. Alternatively, schools can purchase cheap cardboard headsets in which you place a smartphone to make the experience even more immersive.

“The Trust’s long-term plan is to have the educator travel to schools throughout the country,” added Bleakley, “and create virtual reality vision of the marine environment in their areas.”  

Compiled by Lara Harrison, of the Sir Peter Blake Trust.

To find our more and to register your school to take part in NZ-VR go to

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