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Volume 101, Issue 4 e01734
Meeting Reviews
Open Access

Promoting a Sense of Place Virtually: A Review of the ESA Weekly Water Cooler Chat Focused on Virtual Sense of Place

Kelly Hoke

Corresponding Author

Kelly Hoke

The STEM Research Center at Oregon State University, 254 Gilbert Hall, Corvallis, Oregon, 97331 USA

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Kari O’Connell

Kari O’Connell

The STEM Research Center at Oregon State University, 254 Gilbert Hall, Corvallis, Oregon, 97331 USA

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Steven Semken

Steven Semken

Arizona State University, Bateman Physical Sciences F-Wing 550 E Tyler Mall, Tempe, Arizona, 85281 USA

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Vipin Arora

Vipin Arora

Oregon State University, Austin Hall 338 2751 SW Jefferson Way, Corvallis, Oregon, 97331 USA

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First published: 21 June 2020
Citations: 2

The world has forever been changed by the pandemic. It does not look or operate like it did prior to COVID-19, and we do not know what it will look like moving forward. The current “normal,” whether still facing quarantine or not, presents both challenges and opportunities. The ESA Weekly Water Cooler Chat is a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that brings together practitioners and researchers by providing a space for members to chat about what they are facing. As many people are forced into a “virtual” remoteness, the Water Cooler topics often address online or virtual field experiences. The Undergraduate Field Experiences Research Network (UFERN) (NSF RCN-UBE grant #173056) and ESA came together in April 2020 to organize a transdisciplinary chat, “Connecting to Place - Virtually.”

1 Motivations and Purpose

In undergraduate field learning experiences, students often gain a connection to the physical field environment or field learning site, and often to the cultural attributes of its setting as well (e.g., Jolley et al. 2018). The immersed experience and connection to the object of study is part of the value for field experiences (Giamellaro 2014). Many current ecologists can relate to this feeling of connection either through a current place of study, a memory of their own undergraduate field experiences, or a field excursion they have led (Morales et al. in press). This connection or sense of place is developed from the meanings we (collective we) make and the emotional attachments we form in field settings (Brandenburg and Carroll 1995). The emotional investment secures our attachment to field sites, and we often become champions for these spaces. Focusing in on attributes or artifacts from a real environment that shape the identity of a place or community, lends to the design of virtual environments to simulate a realistic experience for students, thereby providing a sense of virtual place for students (Arora and Khazanchi 2014).

The ESA Water Cooler Chat on 24 April 2020 which focused on how to facilitate a connection to place in a virtual space, featured two speakers with research and teaching interests focused on place: Steve Semken and Vipin Arora. Although the construct of sense of place, and its application to place-based and field-based teaching, is not new (Semken and Butler Freeman 2008), these ideas have gained momentum across educational communities in the last decade (Semken et al. 2017). To chat about what developing a sense of place means for the virtual landscape, over 50 people joined the conversation via Zoom. For those unable to attend, we provide excerpts from the presentations and following summarized discussion by themes that emerged.

2 Presentation Summaries

2.1 Steve Semken: Sense of place connects students to the places they study

An ethnogeologist and education researcher who studies the diverse meanings of sense of place and its relationship to teaching and learning, Semken, reviewed the value of place-based teaching, which enables students to develop their own intellectual and emotional connections (i.e., sense of place) to the field localities they study, by engaging with the natural and the cultural attributes of these places. Such paired connections are what we want to be able to sustain, as we move from outdoor, site-based field learning toward virtual field learning experiences.

2.2 Vipin Arora: Immersive learning experiences using virtual environments

Bringing the expertise of where technology and virtual learning intersect, Arora shared that the technology already exists for creating immersive virtual environments. The technology experienced on video games where players become so drawn into the game that they “disconnect” from the world around them, immersed into the virtual world, is what practitioners want to facilitate for students. Arora discussed that a sense of place can also be used as an intermediate, to further engage students in virtual settings and measure outcomes. If technology can be accessed to develop and design immersive virtual environments, providing context, then practitioners can provide tasks that foster a sense of place (Arora and Khazanchi 2014). Arora recommends to not limit technology use to Zoom presentations or PowerPoint to engage with students. Many types of technology can be used. Videos, drones, and virtual worlds/ games can all be used to provide a sense of virtual place; that is to say, to simulate a realistic experience for students by providing context for specific learning tasks.

3 Themes from the Chat:

  • The instructors’ sense of place
  • Building on students’ sense of place
  • Community, an aspect of place
  • Measuring sense of place

3.1 The instructors’ sense of place

Semken suggested that to best help students connect to places in a virtual format, the instructor(s) must themselves have, and show, their own intellectual and emotional connections to the place of interest. If an instructor loves a place, whether actual or virtual, it will show in teaching. Semken mentioned that in his teaching, students will pick up on his enthusiasm for places when he shares his own sense of place. Creative tasks such as drawings, role-playing, and group projects can encourage students to form and demonstrate their sense of place. As one participant in the chat mentioned, even TED talks have a particular formula to connect the audience in and feel attached to the presented message. The excitement the narrator brings draws the audience in. The same goes for introducing a place of study: the instructor is building a narrative, a context-rich story about a place. This can and should work for virtual learning experiences (VLE) as well as physical experiences. Even in a postpandemic world, VLEs can connect students to a place prior to going out in the field, and as one participant pointed out it could also be a way to encourage research online prior to their experience of the site itself. If students are completely new to a site, it may take more time to scaffold the development of their sense of place, and initial student research prior to a field experience may lay the foundation towards this invested connection.

3.2 Building on students’ sense of place

It is also important to know as an instructor what connections students bring to the learning environment and build on their own sense of place. As Arora mentioned, include topics of interest to connect with students’ emerging identities. For example, not every student has experienced remote or protected natural spaces and there is a risk of alienating students or privileging one student over another.

Building upon existing connections to students’ own backyards or local environments (including even built environments) could be a great strategy to shift instructors' perception of space and what is around us. Semken noted that if students’ knowledge and attachment are concentrated on the built environment, use that. Imagine a college campus, a culturally and physically shared prior experience for students. Shared space provides a setting with context to build upon. Explore how the natural world and the built environment interact. Create learning tasks that simulate realistic experiences, and use the artifacts of the place to guide the tasks, meeting the students where they are. These approaches can be implemented in both real and virtual settings and may be more powerful than introducing students to a place they have no connection to and trying to build a connection from nothing.

3.3 Community, an aspect of place

Many participants discussed the critical aspect of human or emotional connections during learning experiences. One participant shared a paper that positions a sense of place around self, others, and environment. Maybe even more essential during quarantines, the social and emotional aspects of a learning environment should be considered. Arora discussed that including artifacts can foster human connection in virtual environments. Artifacts are items that people normally associate with a place. Elements like sky, ground, streets, trees, furniture, images, and even sounds can be included to give a realistic look to the virtual environment.

Using virtual world technology, students can be personified as avatars and gather together to aid social connections as well (Arora and Khazanchi 2017).

3.4 Measuring a sense of place

Another theme to emerge in the discussion was sense of place as a measurable learning outcome (Semken and Freeman 2008) that in turn enhances other learning outcomes like pro-environmental, pro-social behaviors, and content knowledge (e.g., Scannell and Gifford 2010). Semken et al. (2017) review a host of prior studies and instruments that characterize sense of place and distinguish it from other learning outcomes applicable to field-based learning. By asking students what a place means to them, sense of place is as much a learning outcome as it is an assessment of their connection to place. To provide a sense of place similar to the one experienced in real places, instructors must design the virtual place as immersive as being outside in a traditional field experience, using the components addressed above. Instructors need to integrate multiple sensory aspects that integrate other senses and interactions.

4 Summary

Semken and Arora provided actionable items and insights that transform what is known about community building and connection to a physical place into how to foster a sense of place for students in a virtual realm. They discussed the following principles: Design your virtual community to build upon the principles of Place-Based Education, tell your story of the place, build on student experiences, use community as context and an artifact to foster a sense of place. Arora pointed out that a “copy” of a real physical place is not needed in designing a virtual setting, but to include what is most relevant to foster a “place identity.” Fostering a sense of place in virtual environments is not technology-specific; videos, drones, and virtual worlds/ games can all be used to provide a sense of virtual place. The goal of fostering a sense of place in a virtual realm is to invite students to explore and know these places to deepen their learning.

5 Collaboration ideas that emerged from the meeting:

  • A community that can share virtual place experiences as resources to teach different ecological concepts.
  • Develop “collaborative teaching across schools” where students teach other students in another geographic location about the ecology in their own backyard.
  • Connect with the Undergraduate Field Experiences Research Network (UFERN).
  • Industry and academic partnerships to get the latest technology accessible for education uses.