Replicating the Amazon Rainforest in Virtual Reality

Last Updated:12/15/2021

EAST at Benton High School students partnered with a local elementary school to create an educational VR experience set in the Amazon Rainforest.

When EAST at Benton High School student Hayden George walked into EAST at the beginning of the school year, he already knew that developing video games was his passion.

“I am actually developing my own VR game outside of school,” Hayden said. “So the reason I suggested making a game in EAST was primarily for practice.”

Hayden’s idea of developing a video game caught the attention of his classmate Shannon Griffin, who proposed combining Hayden’s love of game development, her own love of environmental science, and their partner Rebecca Shipley’s love of working with children into creating an educational VR game for elementary school students.

“We knew you couldn’t just make a video game for fun,” Shannon said. “We wanted to create something to help sensory learners learn, so we thought creating a VR game would allow those types of learners to experience what they’re learning about.”

The game is a 20-30 minute interactive experience set in the Amazon Rainforest. The EAST students created an open map where the player can walk around and interact with different wildlife and plants.

“There are text prompts that will pop up to provide information about whatever the player is interacting with,” Shannon said. “Hayden worked on adding in the scripts that I wrote into the game. I did a lot of research and we are trying to make it easy to read for the kids. It’s mainly just a lot of fun facts about the animals!”

While Shannon decided what elements went into the game and Hayden directed how the game works technically, they have two teammates that were crucial in the game’s creation - especially as the group only had one semester to develop it.

Rebecca led the charge when it came to design, using Blender to create 16 animal models and 8 plant models that were placed in the game. She and Shannon worked together in the creation of the game’s characters, and even learned how to create animations like making a snake slither around. 

“You basically make the shapes and then you develop them more, then you have to sculpt it and color it all in,” Rebecca said. “My favorite process was coloring it because I really love art so putting in color and the finishing touches on everything was really enjoyable.”

While Rebecca and Shannon largely worked as a duo, Hayden also had a partner-in-crime for the project with Lane Belew, who designed the map for the game using elements created by Rebecca and Shannon as well as elements offered by the Unity Engine.

“I had no prior experience working in Unity before this project, but when I started working on the map I discovered that I really liked it,” Lane said. “We have a schedule for each week detailing what we are going to be doing with deadlines and everything since we are on a tight schedule.”

The quartet welcomed Gifted and Talented students from Annie Grant Elementary School into the EAST classroom to give the game a try.  Anne Felan, the teacher of the class, said her students were amazed at what the EAST students were able to create.

“My 3rd graders really, really enjoyed the entire experience with the EAST students' project - the VR game, the high school students and getting to go to the high school,” Felan said. “More specifically the words I heard when I asked them what the best part was that they loved that the animals moved like they were real. They really enjoyed the VR experience - which was a first for some of them - and had a blast.”

Hayden and his partners all agreed that EAST has been a great experience to all of them, and Hayden says he favors EAST’s learning style over the traditional classroom environment as he’s been able to be more hands-on with his learning, and has become a better video game developer - a passion he plans to pursue for years to come.

“You just get more done in EAST,” Hayden said. “You don’t have to follow someone else’s pace. I’m a very fast-paced worker and I enjoy not having to conform to what everyone else is doing. I’m able to set my own pace and just worry about what my team and I are doing.”

While work on the project is finished, EAST at Benton High School and Angie Grant Elementary are planning to stay connected and will invite students to experience the game for years to come.

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