With a body as long as a school bus and an open mouth that could swallow a washing machine, basking sharks are really, really big.
And for environmental sustainability students in professor Paul Mensink’s class, learning can hardly get more immersive than a deep dive into the world of a vulnerable species that is the planet’s second-largest shark.
Starting early next year, the class will be the first to use an innovative augmented-reality (AR) app that will bring them, virtually, into an oceanscape, where they will swim beside the basking sharks.
Then they’ll be swallowed up in the creature’s massive maw, shrink to the size of zooplankton, be digested and finally be excreted as ‘marine snow.’
“One of the challenges of studying the ocean is that you can show lots of photos but you can’t see the scope or the scale,” said Mensink, a professor of marine ecology who specializes in educational technology and is a Teaching Fellow in the Faculty of Science. “This app will use AR and a bit of gamification to add to students’ knowledge base. It’s a comprehensive and immersive experience.”
There’s an app for that
The grant will support the development of the EnviroXR tool, with London-based creative technology firm EXAR Studios developing and testing an app that will make the entire class marine biologists and conservationists.
The plan is that students in the course, cellphones in hand, will board an AR ‘boat’ and navigate a strategically placed sea of shark fins cruising along UC Hill, Mensink said.
When they tap their phones on the fins, they can affix satellite-tracking tags to the sharks and then dive into the ocean to come face-to-jaw with the giant creature.
“They’ll be able to walk alongside the shark and get a sense of how large these sharks can be,” Mensink said. “They’ll look inside the shark’s mouth and see its tiny teeth and huge gill rakers from the inside. And then they’ll be swallowed whole.”
Basking sharks are the second-largest fish in the ocean (only whale sharks are larger) but are filter feeders of tiny organisms and have no appetite for people.
They are deemed a vulnerable species globally and, with their numbers in sharp decline off Canada’s Pacific coast, Canada’s species-at-risk program has declared them endangered.
Mensink said students will learn not just about the sharks but about how the species’ presence, or absence, affects the ecosystem in both the ocean and on land.
When there are fewer creatures to dine on surface-layer plankton, for example, the ocean is less capable of performing its vital role in locking atmospheric carbon away in sediment on the sea floor.
The AR experience is about more than gee-whiz technology, however. Mensink said it’s also part of a research project to investigate whether students learn better immersively than, say, by watching a video or hearing a lecture.
“Sure this is cool, or sounds cool, but is it actually effective in helping students to learn and stay engaged? We hope so but we need to look at whether it’s better, and how it might be better than traditional teaching and learning methods.
Unity Social Impact is a division of Unity aimed at empowering employees and creators of all backgrounds to foster a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable world.
“We believe that immersive educational experiences have the power to produce better learning outcomes, and to reach learners from a wider variety of backgrounds,” Marina Psaros, global sustainability lead with Unity, said in a statement. “In virtual environments, anyone from around the world can experience what their community might look like in a climate-disrupted future, or have an underwater encounter with an endangered basking shark. We’re thrilled to be providing the resources to EXAR Studios and Western University to expand the possibilities of XR for conservation science and education.”
EXAR Studios is an award-winning immersive technology company with a focus on tourism and local business with specialties that include education, sustainability, mental health, and diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We are reimagining what education can be, and inspiring the next generation of environmental champions,” said EXAR chief strategy officer Shishir “S” Pande.