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Connecting to Place – Virtually

ESA Water Cooler Chat – April 24, 2020

We are all faced with teaching courses online without giving students access to a traditional field site. This water cooler chat discussed: How can we connect students with the context that is the focus of study or research? How can we connect them to place, even in a virtual environment?

Hosted by

Steve Semken, Arizona State University
Vipin Arora, Oregon State University
UFERN leaders Kari O’Connell and Kelly Hoke


Steve Semken: Sense of Place in a Virtual Setting

A place has cultural and natural attributes. A sense of place is developed when we become emotionally attached (or build aversion) to places. The intellectual and emotional connections create a sense of place.

Sense of place can be found at different scales and can also be negotiable. A National Park has different meanings for different people. When there are lots of people who feel the place is important, people call for it to be preserved as a national park.

Vipin Arora: The Intersection of technology and learning

If we can design these kinds of environments, we can provide tasks that work to foster sense of place. Many types of technology can be used: videos, drones, virtual worlds, games, etc. We can provide students with a sense of virtual place and simulate realistic experiences for students by providing context for specific learning tasks.

One of the things that people struggle with grasping in a virtual place is how to make it as ‘immersive’ as being outside on a traditional field trip. How do you work to integrate aspects that speak to others (i.e., non-visual) senses and interactions?

In video games nowadays, e.g. NBA or NFL video game, you may sometimes get so immersed that you feel that you are a part of the virtual environment. Unfortunately, we don’t have this kind of technology for education. Can industry and academia partner to make this possible?

Places have “identity” – people relate to what they already know – include relevant things like artifacts or the environment itself. It is not necessarily technology dependent. There is this notion of place identity. We use that so that people have guidelines when we create virtual guidelines. You don’t have to make everything, but you do have to include the most relevant. Think about your particular audience – e.g. to interest girls in engineering, include things that girls can relate to.

Sense of place as both learning outcome and an assessment metric

Studies have found that student gains in content knowledge is comparable with courses that are not place-based. Additionally, sense of place helps with other learning objectives e.g. pro-environmental behaviors.

In virtual learning environments (VLEs), how engaged students are in these settings can be tied to assessments and learning outcomes.


  • Can we figure out which components tie people viscerally to physical places, and attempt to replicate the mechanisms when possible? Can immersive VR be used?
  • Learning might happen through compelling videos but maybe not have a sense of place. Tool vs the end point.
  • How can we foster that critical human connection and sense of community that normally occurs during place-based experiential learning in a virtual environment?
  • What insights for connecting people to REAL places can we draw from understanding how people connect to VIRTUAL places?
  • How can we tie students’ prior experience to a new place?
  • What is the spatial scale for sense of “place” – if there are many, what scale should we focus on now (in the context of COVID 19)?
  • Are there are a set of known criteria that matter the most for effective pedagogy through virtual media – e.g. enthusiasm of the narrator, color, movement, background noises, length, 2d vs 3d etc.?

People, History and Change

  • Of interest is also what happens to the community and its sense of place when the “place” changes. There’s not only a sense of loss to the individual but a loss of history to the community.
  • How much of the sense of place is due to the community within which the connection is formed? Can a sense of place exist absent a human community?
  • Does the formation of connection change with the kind of community or group within which it takes place?
  • Exploring the “sense of place” is really interesting to understand human nature, interpreting history, etc.

Fictional environments

  • VLEs are intended to simulate real places. What about using a fictional place like Hogwarts?
  • In the case of Hogwarts, there is a whole community and people spend a lot of time exploring it. Loving a place will encourage and foster learning.
  • While Hogwarts is not real, it recalls real experiences and emotional connections that we have had, which is why so many people around the world can relate. How much can we apply this idea in ecology/place-based education?

Ecological/ Geological vs Built environments

Place provides a great context for motivating and supporting an integrated multi-dimensional understanding but many students have a strong sense of place that’s mostly social and built-environment and NOT very ecological (or geological for that matter).

Certain places have gained a collective cultural sense of place. The Grand Canyon is one. But there are also individual elements of connecting to place. The motivation to do place-based education is to expand students’ sense of place. If students’ place knowledge and attachment is concentrated on the built environment, you can build on that to introduce how the natural environment influences the built environment.

Suggestions to help students get connected to place in an online/virtual format

  • Love the place you are teaching about and share what makes the place special to you and students pick up on your enthusiasm. If students are new to the site, it does take time.
  • Use creative assignments that help students build emotional bonds
    • Start with inviting students to think about a place they know and why it is important or special to them. Encourage them to work on something that manifests their sense of place e.g. a map, a drawing, it’s flexible.
  • Make it two-way – give students the opportunity to share their sense of place
  • Place-based education is about sharing the ecological, geological place meanings and helping integrate that with student sense of place more broadly (e.g., the social and built environment aspects)
  • In virtual environments, creating human connections is achieved by using relevant artifacts, images and sounds that people normally associate with that place.
  • Classical natural history education is a good example of place-based teaching
  • Story-telling is a big component to establishing connection with place people have never physically been. Think of building virtual tours like a TED talk, using TED Talk guidelines. TED talks are really focused on emotional connection with the speaker and story telling. Story Collider takes a similar approach
  • Scale is totally flexible. We tend to think of big, far away places. As our circles of activity have contracted (with COVID-19), we can think of places in our neighborhoods, and campuses. A chair can be a place if it is meaningful to someone e.g. whose grandmother has used it.

Collaboration ideas

  • Perhaps this community could create and share virtual place experiences to teach different ecological concepts
  • Develop “collaborative teaching across schools” – your students teach my students about ecology of place in your back yard and mine teach yours. Build a network across the country or globe
  • Undergraduate Field Experiences Research (U-FERN) Network
    Email: moc.liamgnull@ffats.nrefu
    Linkedin:  search for UFERN group and request to join



Semken, E. Geraghty Ward, S. Moosavi, P. Chinn. 2017. Place-based education in geoscience: theory, research, practice, and assessment. Journal of Geoscience Education 65: 542-562.

Gufstason, P. 2001. Meanings Of Place: Everyday Experience And Theoretical Conceptualizations Journal of Environmental Pyschology 21(1).

National Association of Geoscience Teachers online teaching resources:



on Sense of Place in Ecology Education (ESA journals)

on Augmented Reality in Ecology   (Google Scholar search)

on Virtual Reality in Ecology (Google Scholar search)


Other Resources

Libraries of Life  Check out the archives of lesson plans and 3D models / videos of plants, insects, fish, birds,  in augmented reality  (click on the three bars top left of Libraries of Life website and scroll down for available resources)

Outside the Collection Box: Connecting community with collections via augmented reality

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