With sea levels rising at increasing rates worldwide, University of Miami Interactive Media Professor Kim Grinfeder wondered: could he create a virtual experience that teaches students how they might navigate a coastal city like Miami 100 years from now?
“Understanding mangrove ecology
and how to leverage this ecosystem
to build urban resilience
will be critical to our survival.”
About two years ago, Grinfeder formed a small interdisciplinary group of students and faculty and staff members with expertise in virtual reality, mangrove ecology, coastal management, and architecture. And this summer, they unveiled their immersive application, called “Mangrove City.”
“It is expected that 243,000 square miles in the U.S. will be impacted by sea level rise in 2100 and several large cities are in that area, including Miami. Building sea walls isn’t going to be enough; we need to learn how to adapt,” said Grinfeder, who also leads the University’s XR Initiative. “Understanding mangrove ecology and how to leverage this ecosystem to build urban resilience will be critical to our survival.”
The group’s efforts did not go unnoticed. The Mangrove City team recently placed first in the education category at an XR Prize Climate Change Challenge as part of AWE, the Augmented World Expo in California.
Geared toward middle school and high school students, the virtual reality app allows them to paddle through a fictional metropolis and experience firsthand what it might be like to traverse a U.S. coastal hub of the future. It also illustrates the importance of mangroves for protecting our coastlines from erosion and storm surge, inviting users to consider environmental engineering as a future career path. At different stations, students learn about coastal destruction, common types of mangroves, and bird and fish species that thrive in a mangrove ecosystem.
“Often, the most effective learning is experiential, and virtual reality offers a unique opportunity to transport students into mangroves and to consider alternative realities,” Grinfeder said. “I see applications like this as the future of education.”
When he crafted the idea for Mangrove City, Grinfeder already had started working with interactive media faculty member Zevensuy Rodriguez to explore “self-propelled locomotion,” or ways to move oneself forward in virtual reality through a School of Communication research grant. One of the interactions they explored was using a paddleboard to navigate a virtual environment, which worked so well that they decided to co-create Mangrove City.
As the project grew, Grinfeder reached out to architecture lecturer Ruth Ron and to Rafael Araujo, a senior research associate, lecturer, and mangrove expert at the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science. Both used the opportunity to engage their students. Ron asked hers to design buildings that could withstand rising sea levels, learning from the mangrove’s evolutionary adaptations.
Through the project, Ron said her students gained skills anchored in the reality of designing resilient buildings for Miami, while also learning new software tools to create buildings in virtual reality.
“To be a designer of the metaverse
is an amazing opportunity
for our architecture students.”
“When they graduate, they’ll be able to operate as architects not just in the physical world, but also in the virtual world, which is a growing market,” Ron said. “To be a designer of the metaverse is an amazing opportunity for our architecture students.”
Araujo and his students consulted with Grinfeder and Ron on how mangroves help protect coastal ecosystems.
“I liked the experience of working with such a talented team that came from so many disciplines at the University—their enthusiasm was contagious,” said Araujo, who is presenting the experience to mangrove experts from across the world at the sixth international Mangrove Macrobenthos and Management conference (MMM6) in Cartagena, Colombia this week (7/26/2023). “But I’m sure this is just the beginning. Once Mangrove City is out in the world, I believe I will find renewed inspiration from the many middle and high school students who will interact with the technology and learn to appreciate this remarkable ecosystem.”