Using virtual reality to teach large-enrolment environmental science classes

Using virtual reality to teach large enrollment environmental science classes

[Virtual Reality]…offer[s] online learning opportunities…to preserve and improve upon the high-quality experiential learning experience.

– Dr. Nicholas Eyles


Growing enrollment has made it very difficult to maintain the crucially important hands-on experiential learning required for environmental science courses. Traditional laboratory and field exercises cannot accommodate the logistical and accessibility demands created by large diverse classes. This project offers online learning opportunities in the Department of Physical and Environmental Science at UTSC to preserve and improve upon the high-quality experiential learning experience associated with the Department’s Environmental Science programs. This objective will be accomplished through the development of a series of interactive and media-enriched virtual reality-based tours through Ontario and the Great Lakes, designed to demonstrate real-world applicability of classroom concepts. Virtual reality provides an innovative immersive and novel platform for delivering enriched educational materials while increasing engagement by students to self-guide their learning.


Department of Physical & Environmental Sciences, University of Toronto Scarborough

Project lead(s)

Professor Nicholas Eyles

Year LEAF Granted


Funding Stream


LEAF Priority Area(s)

Digital Learning


Impact of the Project on Students

The informal surveys in EESA06 (Introduction to Planet Earth), large enrollment course (around 2000 per year) at UTSC, have shown the use of online modules has substantially enhanced student engagement, raised overall course marks and grades, and demonstrated to other faculty the value of online learning. This occurred pre-Covid and placed the project team at the forefront to online instruction in the Department of Physical and Environmental Sciences at UTSC after March 2020. One of the team members, Shane Sookhan, was appointed as Online Coordinator by the Department for 12 months and instructed faculty in online preparation. This would not have been possible without LEAF funding. Since then, additional eCampus funding was obtained to generate additional online content based on modules, in other courses and the student response has been excellent.

Resources Developed from the Project

Weekly online modules akin to labs which otherwise would be impossible given the large enrolments. Students answer questions on the material, obtain their marks immediately through Quercus. You can also view the Planet Earth website here:

Impact of the Project on Faculty

The LEAF grant showcased the potential of online learning at a critical time and has guided Departmental faculty subsequently.

Partner(s) Development

LEAF accelerated uptake and development of online learning in the entire Department. There is discussion of a permanent hire in online support within the Department.

Future Plans

Additional eCampus funding (2021-2) was obtained, again emphasizing the importance of virtual reality in bringing the environmental into the classroom. The project’s success with online learning initiated by LEAF has also accelerated the team’s research activity, leading to a recent (April 20121) receipt of $100k funding from UTSC’s Departmental Research Fund to purchase a new large drone with sensors and cameras to allow use to obtain further digital imagery of the environment. Though aimed primarily at research, much of the new imagery will be used in teaching, and most recently in writing a proposal to support new initiatives in public outreach and education using online modules.

In conclusion, LEAF was a breakthrough for this group and in terms of deliverables it has been highly effective and has had a demonstrable impact on the entire department.