TTU BusinessMedia Center, Tennessee Aquarium bring environmental education to life

Swimming through the river, it’s easy to see dozens of different species of aquatic life. All of a sudden, it isn’t. The water is murky and the spots where the fish or other creatures should be are bare.

A glance up at the riverbank helps to explain why. Silt running off a nearby construction site is polluting the water and covering critical habitat.

Then a question comes up on the screen, asking the student what she wants to do about the site: remove it or otherwise modify the project to protect the environment .

The virtual riverbank is the latest result of a collaboration between the Tennessee Aquarium and Tennessee Tech University to expand educational offerings at the aquarium. Using 3-D Oculus Rift virtual reality technology, the College of Business’ BusinessMedia Center has created an environmentally correct river using science and data from the aquarium.

“We take groups to snorkel in a river but that’s something we can’t take everybody to experience. It would ruin the environment and there’d be nothing left to see,” said Thaddeus Taylor, the aquarium’s learning specialist. “This is a great way to give a large number of people that experience. The additional benefit is being able to change conditions so you can actually see the effect in faster than real time.”

The recently completed program will help children and others to understand the effects of different human activities, including construction sites and farms.

The virtual stream is one of several projects the two organizations are working on. The BusinessMedia Center last year created an app for the aquarium and, more recently, devised a system where an electric eel’s discharges fired off tweets, mostly containing fishy puns and information about freshwater conservation.

The duo is already working on another project that would track where species of fish and other aquatic creatures are found in the region. The website, when live, will serve a dual purpose: allowing scientists to gather and share data, and letting curious members of the public explore the biodiversity around them.

“If people could use this resource before they start a highway project, they’ll be able to see what’s there so we can prevent or mitigate the effects of the project,” said Andree Herbert, aquarium development director. “We are helping the public appreciate what’s in their backyard and helping them realize they don’t have to go to Madagascar to see this biodiversity.”

The website’s timeline is uncertain; the aquarium is waiting on funding to build it, though the data are already collected.

All of the projects are developed by a team of student interns from across academic majors at TTU and BusinessMedia Center staff.

“What we are doing is truly cutting-edge,” said Kevin Liska, center director. “This is something that no one else is doing right now. With the new technologies that we have, we are able to build tools for the aquarium that will help them spread their mission of teaching inspiration, appreciation and protection.”