UNCW and DC Virgo collaboration brings sea turtle lesson to life

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 student researchers 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 Undergraduate Research and Scholarship Support Centerwho oversees the REU program.

REU provides undergraduate students, especially underrepresented groups and veterans, with applied learning opportunities to learn about research and hone their skills to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

“REU’s goal and budget is to support these students in their interests and help them become STEM professionals,” Grove said. “Whether it’s working in park services, pharmaceuticals, or as doctors, it’s 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 that you have undergraduate students involved in research under a faculty mentor, and then they become mentors themselves, learning to communicate science and create connections to kids who were maybe like them 10 years ago,” said James Stocker, an associate professor at Watson College of Education who has been heavily involved in leading marine science students at REU this summer.

With the help of a two-year grant provided through the NSF Innovative technological experiences for students and teachers, Stocker’s REU mentees have joined an ongoing project that uses virtual reality to create a primary and secondary curriculum on the Loggerhead Sea Turtle life cycle. They spent several weeks developing lesson plans and practicing communicating their research to young audiences.

For two days, UNCW students worked directly in class with third, fourth and fifth graders, teaching them how to measure sea turtles and collect data. They also taught them about sea turtle emergency rescue and nest preservation. On the third day, the young students were able to apply what they had learned using virtual reality glasses and handsets.

“The kids were very excited to try out the VR headsets and the vast majority didn’t want to take them off,” said Blake Blackport, a UNCW graduate student who leads 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 inspire young students to pursue an interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics and maintain those interests.

“An important part of this particular REU project is paying for it,” said Dr. Laura Jennings, deputy director of the DC Virgo Preparatory Academy. “It’s about giving back and learning to frame and explain science to primary school students. Kids look up to undergraduates who embark on STEM careers. We hope that young students can visualize themselves in the future doing the same.

–Krissy Vick


A DC Virgo student wears a VR headset