Final Report: Virtual Boat for Environmental Education (VBEE)

EPA Grant Number: SU836012
Title: Virtual Boat for Environmental Education (VBEE)
Investigators: Chang, Tiao , Andre, Nathan , Bentz, John , Copley, Andrew , Fang, Yanhui , Liu, Chang , Ozercan, Sertac , Wiseman, Justin , Ye, Xin , Zhu, Qing
Institution: Ohio University - Main Campus
EPA Project Officer: Lank, Gregory
Phase: I
Project Period: August 15, 2011 through August 14, 2012
Project Amount: $14,898
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Challenge Area - Built Environment , P3 Challenge Area - Water , P3 Awards , Sustainability


The project objective is to design a virtual boat that has the capability for sampling water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, total phosphate, nitrate, and turbidity to estimate the water quality index to gauge the health of Ohio River water. The virtual boat will be designed using the Unity 3D multi-platform and the data obtained from the Boat of Knowledge in Science Classroom (BooKS) project and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO). It will be tested and evaluated in science classes of the local high schools in the economically depressed Appalachian region of the Ohio River.

The design of the virtual boat based on the available environmental data collected by varied organizations and projects and the immersive computer technology of 3D Unity is highly sustainable in terms of people, prosperity and the planet. It will provide opportunities for a group of civil engineering and computer science students at Ohio University to collaboratively develop an innovative educational tool to increase awareness of protecting Ohio River water for the public in general and high school students in particular.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

The VBEE design, a functional virtual boat, has provided high school students and the general public with a tool to review the water quality index at varied locations of the Ohio River and trace sources of pollution in simulated cases of fish kill and pollutant spill. The virtual boat has been designed to patrol along the shoreline of actual chemical and power plants from Marietta to Gallipolis along the Ohio River. The product has been demonstrated and initially evaluated in science classes of the Athens and Southern Local High Schools, both located near the Ohio River.

Contributions to Pollution Prevention: Results of the initial evaluation have shown that the proposed VBEE design with the integration of lesson plans and video games has increased highschool students’ awareness of water pollution and the natural resource of Ohio River water to enhance environmental sustainability and resource protection through pollution prevention.


The framework of the VBEE design has been successfully established in Phase I, in which a functional virtual boat has been built in the virtual world setting, along with a game scenario, and two lesson plans integrating with the game. Based on the results of pre- and post-test, it shows that participating students gained environmental knowledge from 39% to 67% for the water quality index game and lesson, and from 50% to 77% for the pollutant locator using the global position system (GPS) game and lesson. Based on the result of a usability test, 80% of participating high school students can easily find the intended target locations following the instruction built in the game. With further enhancement and implementation with more participating schools and users, the VBEE can be a valuable and useful learning tool for environmental education, particularly for increasing student interests in environmental sustainability.

Balance. By minimizing the resources needed to produce the end-product and maximizing the educational content placed into the virtual atmosphere, the environmental impacts associated with the project are negligible. The fact that only computers, common in schools and households, are required for the VBEE application drives the prosperity of the project to efficiently increase the awareness of pollution in local water systems. Since the VBEE is and will be constantly improved, the project is beginning to evolve from a simulated educational tool, originally available to high-school students, to an educational game that self-contains all educational elements for the general public. This is important so that more people will be able to benefit from the resource without the need for a formal lecture to understand the concepts. The game is currently focused on the Ohio River, near Marietta, Ohio, but the Unity platform allows each lesson plan to be developed based on a different location. We believe that Phase I has achieved the balance among the elements of people, prosperity, and the planet.

Success and barriers. The Phase I project has successfully evolved with the feedback from participating local educators and beta testing. Based upon the objectives and criteria for Phase I, the VBEE project has been successful. The most challenging obstacle was for the computer science students to link the designed tool to a database containing the water quality data. Upon recognizing this issue, the project team came up with a plan to replicate the water quality parameters for various ‘zones’ within the studied reach of the river. Another barrier for the design and development was that the Phase I project did not provide time support for students, particularly for the team leader who had to spend quality time for coordination among team members and link pieces together for the final product. From the beta testing results and feedback from teachers, it was determined that the game should be shortened to fit within one class period. Due to the length of time required to complete the game, students became bored and discouraged. Shortening the game will prevent students and players from being discouraged during a game play. In addition, teachers found it hard to implement the game in less than one class period. Another feature that can be included in the game is to better integrate the lesson plan material with the game and remove the need for a formal lecture.

Disciplines. The interdisciplinary cooperation among the VBEE team members proved to be extremely successful. Each person, throughout the initial design of the virtual boat, has been given responsibilities to fulfill and has played a key role towards the successful development of this educational tool. For the civil and environmental engineering students, the responsibility was content-based. They were given the job of creating the pollution scenario and developing different lesson plans that would benefit the area high schools, while satisfying the standards and benchmarks set forth by the Ohio Department of Education. This was done in cooperation with the BooKS fellows and teachers as well as the civil and environmental engineering professors. The computer science students employed the Unity 3D platform to make the ideas and lesson plans to come to life. If there was a better or more efficient way of performing a task, the computer science students were eager to provide details and implement the new tasks. With previous experience in software engineering, they were also able to provide insightful suggestions as to player expectations or behaviors. Communication between the two groups of students played a crucial part in the VBEE development. Utilizing the platform of Google Groups to make announcements or provide feedback and suggestions, the team was able to discuss and keep track of any advances within the game. The use of the DropBox tool has also demonstrated positive impacts on better communication between the two groups. By increasing awareness of water pollution issues, individual VBEE players will be able to make informed decisions which can prolong the use of natural resources, such as our waterways. Furthermore, because water pollution is an environmental issue on a global scale, the positive impacts of the VBEE are applicable and transferable to other nations in both the developed and developing worlds.

External partners. Though the original partner for the Phase I was only Athens High School in The Plain, Ohio, Southern High School in Racine, Ohio participated in testing the VBEE through the BooKS project. One participating teacher of each high school and one graduate fellow of Ohio University, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through the BooKS project, have paired for testing the VBEE design in their science classes. Should we receive support for the Phase II project, we plan to invite eight high schools and eight graduate fellows of the BooKS project to participate in order to make the VBEE applicable and transferable for more users nationwide and globally.

Quantifiable impact. The environmental impacts of the VBEE project are not quantifiable directly due to its indirect nature of impacts. It is, however, quantifiable for the number of student users and players, which was estimated to be 50 students for our initial test in each school for a total of 100 students. Indeed, it is one of our objectives to increase the number of student users and players should we given the opportunity for the Phase II project.

Qualitative benefit. The benefit of the VBEE project can be qualitatively determined through various methods. While the design game was used by the BooKS fellows and their teachers, pre- and post-tests were administered to monitor the knowledge and interests gained by students. Also, attitudinal questions were included in the pre- and post-tests to measure changes of interest toward water pollution by each student or user as discussed in the project outcomes. While the pre- and post-tests provided a quantitative assessment, the interview with and feedback from the participating teachers and fellows were the qualitative evaluation. This turned out to be the most valuable method as indicated by the results shown in the test at Athens High School. The interest among the students during the game's beta testing showed that the VBEE is a good tool to encourage students to pursue related careers with an emphasis on sustainability. This may help improve the overall quality of life for people and planet, especially those of the economically distressed Appalachian region. We hope to implement the game and lesson at other local schools in Southeastern Ohio if given the opportunity for the Phase II project.

Quality of life impacts. The impacts associated with this project include not only the improvement of the quality of life for individuals, but that of the entire ecosystem. If teachers work together to build a strong sustainable curriculum to reduce the amount of pollution and encourage environmental responsibility, students will learn at a young age to respect the environment. This respect for the environment will add to the sustainability of our resources and comfortable way of living. While small steps, such as recycling programs, have heightened the general population’s awareness of pollution, these concepts can be further developed to translate to water pollution and not just air and land pollution.

Innovative approaches. Though water quality is not a new topic in terms of education and research, the design of the VBEE is original and the approach from the water sampling on a physical boat to that of a virtual boat is innovative, particularly for integrated video games with lesson plans. The virtual boat can easily adapt to changing times and accommodate several different themes into one build. Currently, two lesson plans have been developed for the VBEE: one centering on the water quality index, the other for locating pollutants using GPS. We plan to add more sophisticated levels of game plays and lesson plans for different levels of students or users should we have the opportunity for the Phase II project. Examples for future development include but are not limited to: Study of diffusion rate for a chemical or oil spill that can be incorporated into the game; invasive species that have created problems in the river system; and sediments that are carried to the river system from watershed erosion. Thus, the VBEE learning tool will allow a broad range of solutions for school teachers looking for better ways to present otherwise difficult topics to their class.

Journal Articles:

No journal articles submitted with this report: View all 3 publications for this project

Supplemental Keywords:

Sustainable water management, water conservation, water pollution

Relevant Websites:

VBEE Project Exit

Progress and Final Reports:

Original Abstract