Deep dive experience inspires future marine scientists

Issue: Volume 102, Number 1

Posted: 2 February 2023
Reference #: 1HAZ8F

A marine biology programme that takes a deep dive into some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s marine environments is inspiring a love of science for some Year 7 and 8 ākonga in Wellington and the Wairarapa.

Vivienne, Marlon and Mae take a a close-up look at paua and kina in the lab’s sea tables.

Vivienne, Marlon and Mae take a a close-up look at paua and kina in the lab’s sea tables.

A programme featuring a virtual dive, a visit to a marine biology laboratory and, for some students, an opportunity to drive a remotely operated underwater vehicle, has been developed by marine biologists Professor James Bell and Dr Alice Rogers, software engineer senior lecturer Dr Craig Anslow and postgraduate students from Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

“With the use of virtual reality headsets and 360-degree videos, we’re able to give students the chance to experience New Zealand’s amazing underwater world and see exactly what marine biologists do in their daily work,” says James.

Career pathways

The idea came about when James and some of his colleagues were discussing ways to encourage young people to become marine biologists.

“Year 7 and 8 students are really open to exploring everything as a career pathway – anything and everything is possible for them.

“We wanted to get them to understand there are many ways in which they could be a marine biologist – they don’t necessarily need to get into the water. They could be a designer of robots that go under water; or they could be a software engineer that creates the software that enables people to drive the underwater robots and operate the equipment we use,” he explains.

The virtual reality experience developed by PhD students, with James and Alice contributing 360-degree video footage from marine environments around Aotearoa, was designed to be the centrepiece of the programme.

“The students really love it. We’ve had students lying on the floor with the VR headsets on, pretending they are swimming through the water!” says James.

Evans Bay Intermediate students visit Victoria University’s Coastal Ecology Lab with lab director Dr Alice Rogers, Professor James Bell and EBIS teachers Amanda Hood and Kerri Battersby.

Evans Bay Intermediate students visit Victoria University’s Coastal Ecology Lab with lab director Dr Alice Rogers, Professor James Bell and EBIS teachers Amanda Hood and Kerri Battersby.

Counting fish

For Wellington students, the programme begins with a discussion about the equipment marine biologists use and a tour of Victoria University’s Coastal Ecology Laboratory in Island Bay, where they can chat to students and academics about their research.

“We then split them into groups. One group does the VR experience where they start off on a boat, they can pick up the equipment and it takes them off to various dives and they can see amazing stuff from our marine environments.

“The other group does an exercise, which the students seem to really love. We have a whole lot of plastic fish strung from the ceiling in the lab and we get the students to do what we would do under the water – count and estimate the size of fish. They put their data into the computer and then they can compare how close they are to the actual sizes. It’s a useful way for them to see how science and maths interact,” says James.

Without a laboratory to tour in the Wairarapa, students have an opportunity to drive one of the university’s remotely operated robots in a swimming pool.

“At the end of all the sessions, we bring all the students together and discuss why they think we do the things we do, like why do we count fish or measure sponges? We have discussions around sustainable management of the marine environment, why marine biologists are important, exploration of the seas and the impacts of humans on the environments,” explains James.

Accessible experience

The virtual reality experience offers students a unique and accessible opportunity, says Evans Bay Intermediate science teacher, Amanda Hood.

“It’s amazing! You literally feel like you’re in the water – you can see stingrays and crayfish. The students just love it – it’s just that sense of reality. You can’t take them scuba diving in the ocean, and this is a way we can safely do it.

“They’re a tech generation and it’s really evident to me that VR is one way we can connect this generation to science. It’s easy and it’s safe,” says Amanda.

She explains that different school funding models mean it can be difficult to offer outside-the-classroom experiences for science, and the university programme makes it accessible.

Marlon takes a virtual deep dive into the wonders of our marine environment.

Marlon takes a virtual deep dive into the wonders of our marine environment.

“I do quite a lot of science outreach and I try and give students as many experiences as I possibly can in science outside of the classroom because I’ve seen the benefit of it. Science is one of those subjects where if you can engage students in hands-on, real-life activities, it makes them passionate about it.

“That’s why the Victoria University programme is so, so important, because it’s free. Many programmes are very expensive and that has been a huge barrier to us. This programme is accessible, deals with the local environment and is connected to the local curriculum and I think it’s inspired a whole bunch of students to go on to study science,” she says.

Real world stuff

For Amanda, the visit to the university’s laboratory with a group of Year 7 and 8 students rounded out a year where some students had been studying ocean acidification and climate change and two ākonga had done NIWA Science Fair projects on the topic.

“It was 100 percent real world stuff and I think that was the thing that got my students really interested in it – they could really understand it and link it to climate change and our local marine environment,” says Amanda.

“James and Alice and the team talk about the research they are doing. That’s interesting because the students get to see real science in action and real scientists. They got to see the tanks where they’re doing their research on sponges, looking at climate change and ocean acidification.

“I saw the students stand up a bit straighter and go, ‘Oh, we know what you’re talking about’. Students don’t learn unless they’re engaged. They didn’t want to stop asking questions and they didn’t want to leave,” she laughs.

Quality time

James explains it’s no coincidence that the Year 7 and 8 students have quality time with the academics and postgraduate students.

“We typically have no more than 10 students per session, and there are normally at least two academics and two to three Masters or PhD students. There’s a high level of one-on-one interaction with the students.

 Hanna gets up close and personal with a rock lobster moult.

Hanna gets up close and personal with a rock lobster moult.

“The fact that there are MSc and PhD students there is kind of deliberate so students can get a feel for how they might become a marine biologist; they see young people they can identify with,” he says.

The university team has enjoyed the enthusiasm and passion of the students.

“They have so many amazing questions – they’re picking up lots of great stuff about the marine environment already and some of the questions we’ve got have been insightful and well thought out. For example, there were lots of questions around the sponges when we showed them our mini sponge gardens. Children were asking what impact the changing oceans will have on the sponges? Do sponges feel pain? Are there ethical considerations in working with sponges?” he says.

Forward thinking

The programme can easily be woven into school programmes and is designed to empower children so they feel they can make a difference, explains James.

“It doesn’t matter so much if people want to study marine biology. We also want them to care about the environment – and lots of them do. We’ve done it in a way that it’s not focused on doom and gloom. It’s very much focused on the skills and tools that we use as marine biologists, rather than focusing on the impacts humans are having.”

While Amanda’s students had done some study before the visit, she will be making future use of the connections and knowledge gained from the visit.

“I am going to be ‘stealing’ the Excel programme they were using for estimating the size of the fish, because students can use that for new maths learning. I’m also going to be using some of the techniques they used on their climate change and ocean acidification experiments because they can be quite easily replicated on a smaller scale. And I just hope I can take a new bunch of students back!” she says.

Victoria University has financially supported the programme to date and the university team would love other funders to come on board to expand and include mātauranga Māori, as well as a nationwide VR experience.

“The VR experience that we’ve got can be downloaded onto a smartphone and you can buy really cheap cardboard VR headsets. We had a plan to offer a virtual marine biology experience nationwide, and we would be there as an avatar as they go through the experience,” explains James.

Schools in Wellington and the Wairarapa can contact James at

Student Q&A

What did you like most about your visit to the Coastal Ecology Laboratory in Island Bay?

Liam, Year 8: We got to do an activity replicating what a marine biologist would do by estimating the size of plastic fish hanging from strings, without getting too close or using a ruler to measure.

Mae, Year 7: I liked meeting the scientists, and seeing what stuff they were looking at under the microscopes.

Caitlin, Year 7: I enjoyed the VR because it was great to experience what it would be like (but less cold) to specialise in certain types of marine biology and it was awesome to see all the animals in the habitat.

Jessie, Year 7: I loved how we got to ask lots of questions and the VR headset was so real and very interesting. I definitely would go back again. I have been diving many times and the VR headset looks exactly as it is in the water.

Rosie, Year 8: I really enjoyed meeting the scientists and learning about some of the equipment that they might use while collecting data. I also really enjoyed their wet lab where they conduct experiments and observe marine species.

Has the visit inspired you to do a project or research next year?

Eddie, Year 7: It was a really fun experience. I was thinking about doing a project about growing plants in different environments. There might be a link in my project to climate change.

Paula, Year 8: I definitely will be doing a science project on marine biology next year. I think I could do a project on what marine reserves really do and if they actually help animals and species thrive.

Jessie: For the NIWA Science Fair next year me and my dad are going to see if the marine reserve actually works. I asked some questions about it and it helped me know what I need to, or should, do.

Mae: This visit inspired me to make a science fair project around sea life. I will probably measure bacteria growth from my fish tank over a number of days.

Has it inspired you to continue to study science and/or consider a career in marine biology?

Liam: Yes, absolutely. I love science and seeing real scientists do their work has inspired me even more.

Mae: I have wanted to become a marine biologist for a while, I probably won’t specify seaweed or sea sponges, rather I would like to focus on bigger animals like sharks or orcas.

Caitlin: Science this year has allowed me to discover my passion for science. The trips we have done have really made me realise that marine biology is something that I am very interested in, and I most likely will experience many new opportunities that will ultimately decide if I will complete a degree in any sort of biology.

Eddie: Animals have been one of my favourite things so I think studying marine biology will give me a better understanding of ocean wildlife. I have always wanted to become an actor but maybe zoology could be a backup.

Jessie: I have always wanted to study marine science, but when I was there it helped me understand what they do and how they do it. After the trip I am definitely going to study marine science. I love diving and animals.

Rosie: I think that I have always wanted to learn more about marine biology and science in college but it has definitely made me want to learn about the different aspects, avenues and opportunities that it might open up.

Paula: Biology has always been my favourite subject but marine biology is definitely my thing. When I am older, I think that I would be happy doing any type of science APART from data science. Marine biology is so fun!

India, Vivienne and Hanna learn about moulting in rock lobsters.

India, Vivienne and Hanna learn about moulting in rock lobsters.

Connecting with our seas

Seaweek will be held this year between 4 and 12 March. The theme is Toi Moana –
Toi Tangata: Celebrate connecting with our seas, which perfectly fits the mahi of the Victoria University of Wellington team .

There will be events throughout Aotearoa including the online Ocean Champion Challenge where people are invited to post a short video sharing the mahi and stories of our passionate ocean advocates.

For more information, see link).

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:43 am, 2 February 2023

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