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UniSA Develops VR Experience for Bushfire Education

For residents living in the driest state in the driest country in the world, bushfires are an unfortunate, and all-too-regular part of life. Learning how to survive such emergencies is important for all people, but especially for the region’s youngest citizens. Now, a new virtual reality (VR) experience developed by the University of South Australia is educating children about bushfires and helping them learn how to be safer in a bushfire incident.

Focusing on children aged 10-12 years, the new VR experience presents a scenario where children are tasked to look after a friend’s dog just before a fire event begins to unfold. They participate in a series of problem-solving activities to help save and protect themselves and the dog.

Published in the Journal of Educational Computing, the research demonstrates how immersive VR experiences can deliver significant positive learning outcomes for primary children, independent of their gender, background knowledge or perceived ability to respond to bushfire hazards.

The findings showed that more than 80% of children agreed or strongly agreed that they felt more confident to calmly evaluate the options and make wise decisions to protect themselves from a bushfire. This is especially significant considering that 91 per cent of participants originally lacked any knowledge of fires and that 67 per cent had said that they were too young to make safety decisions in a fire.

The project was part of Safa Molan’s PhD project. Her supervisor and fellow researcher, UniSA’s Professor Delene Weber says immersive VR experiences have enormous potential to engage, educate and empower younger generations.

Prof Weber explained, “VR has enormous potential to teach children about emergencies. As digital natives, they are engaged by technology, so when it’s immersive – as it is with VR – they can experience events realistically, yet within safe parameters.”

Well-designed VR can provide an opportunity for children to apply newly acquired knowledge, reinforce their learnt concepts, and enable immediate feedback – all incredibly valuable learning tools.

In this scenario, the team applied best practices in terms of VR and educational design, showing how VR can achieve higher-order learning skills such as analysis and application of information to a new situation. The team tested the effect on one of the most vulnerable groups – children.

As children have fewer life experiences to build resilience, aren’t as physically strong, and are less likely to have learned much about bushfire safety, they’re often most at risk. Yet the capacity for children to contribute to bushfire safety at their household level should not be underestimated.

Children do not need to be passive victims of disasters and with purpose-built virtual reality experiences such as these, children can be empowered to understand the risks but realise they can help.

Prof Weber says immersive VR technology could potentially be used for other disaster scenarios such as floods or war environments. She noted that building resilience before a traumatic event occurs is invaluable, which is where VR can help.

VR is empowering children to understand how they can control aspects of a disaster or can cope by themselves, and it helps them build their confidence so that they can contribute positively rather than being afraid. This technology could also be applied with ease to other disasters such as floods and wars – which is particularly pertinent currently.

With the upcoming school holidays, the CFS is currently warning families and young people to take care when considering building campfires, especially with dry grass and warm weather still lingering.

In line with holiday trends, Prof Weber is also hoping to investigate VR education scenarios for teenagers and young adults. She added that building competencies and resilience in young people of all ages are vital for their ability to survive in disaster situations – nothing in life is guaranteed, but we want to make sure that our children are given the very best chance.

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