Innovation Fund proposal for an immersive environments lab

The Grinnell College Innovation Fund is an internal grant program for fostering and supporting innovative approaches to teaching and research at the institution. Given the growing interest around virtual reality and yet unrealized opportunities provided by other immersive technologies (e.g., 3D digital game-based learning and visualizations), I thought an immersive environments lab would be an especially timely contribution to the college. But rather than just seeking funding for a lab space, hardware and software, and student workers, I wanted to use the lab to establish a program pipeline for growing the institution, attracting students to the college, connecting technology with real-world experiences, and securing employment and internship opportunities for graduates. The idea of a “program pipeline” came to me when I was a director of the Business German Program at Elon University, where I used a very successful speaker series to bring representatives of German companies and government agencies to campus for employment networking opportunities. I also created an innovative social media advertising campaign to make potential students and their parents aware of the program. I was happy to find out that I will be able to do essentially the same thing here at Grinnell, albeit with an interdisciplinary humanities focus filtered through emerging immersive technologies.

Project area:
Learning Space

Short Title:
Grinnell College Immersive Environments Lab (GCIEL)

Abstract:
Project funding is being sought for the creation of a lab for designing, developing, evaluating, and distributing immersive three-dimensional (3D), virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) environments for use in teaching and research contexts. Lab activity will be structured so that it attracts students to Grinnell College, situates their liberal arts education within a framework of emerging digital technologies, and provides them with internship and employment opportunities.

Project Description:
The Grinnell College Immersive Environments Lab (GCIEL) will initially be housed in the Digital Liberal Arts Collaborative (DLAC) working space in the Forum. The primary mission of the GCIEL will be to educate faculty and students in the creation and application of immersive environments, promote research and teaching with these environments, and network with thought leaders and top content developers outside of the college. To this end, the GCIEL will promote a working group for faculty to read about current developments in immersive environments, discuss how these environments could possibly impact teaching and scholarship, and experience these environments first-hand on lab hardware. The GCIEL will also function as an inquiry-based learning space for students to receive industry standard software training and to use this training to develop immersive environments that support teaching and research. Student lab workers for the GCIEL will be determined by portfolio evaluation and drawn from Grinnell College Virtual Reality (GCVR) organization members and faculty recommendations. To jump start the development of lab workflows and a reusable codebase, the first lab project will develop an immersive environment that virtually recreates a 19th-century Louisiana sugar plantation and tells the forgotten histories of the enslaved people who lived there (http://bit.ly/GCInnov). Professors in the History Department will act as subject-matter experts for content development and advise on historical documents and student archival research. Realizing that 3D, VR, and AR technologies can and should be used to anchor teaching and research activity in the real world, the GCIEL will cooperate with the Institute for Global Engagement to arrange short-term study abroad experiences at project-related sites (e.g., Whitney Plantation: http://bit.ly/InnovWhit and Uncle Sam Plantation Papers: http://bit.ly/USPlant). Such experiences will allow students to develop a deeper understanding of these physical sites and to incorporate important cultural, historical, and social elements from the sites into the digital project. Collaborating with the Office of Development and Alumni Relations and the Center for Careers, Life, and Service, the GCIEL will sponsor a speaker series that brings academic and business leaders in 3D, VR, and AR development to Grinnell College. Goals of the series are to examine how the liberal arts can enrich and complement the tech industry, to foster networking and employment opportunities for students, and to bring technical training and ideas that students acquire during internships back into the GCIEL. In an effort to attract students with an interest in developing immersive environments to Grinnell College, GCIEL activity will be publicized by a robust advertising and social media campaign that will be coordinated with the Office of Admission and the Office of Communications. The GCIEL will also work closely with Information Technology Services, which is also receptive to collaboration with the GCIEL, for purchasing and maintaining hardware and software. 3D models and code developed by the lab will be disseminated as open content that adheres to internationally recognized metadata standards. In sum, the GCIEL will function as an interdisciplinary learning lab and program pipeline for attracting students to Grinnell College, situating their liberal arts education within a framework of emerging digital technologies, providing them with internship and employment opportunities, and facilitating community-based experiential learning opportunities.

Strategic Goals:
The pipeline described in the Project Description complements several areas addressed in the Grinnell College Strategic Plan: (1) enrollment (the GCIEL will help to establish Grinnell as an innovative leader in educational technology, thereby influencing market perceptions of prospective students and their families, and attracting and retaining students through program offerings that align with student interest and job market demands); (2) teaching and learning (the development work done in the GCIEL will require interdisciplinary collaboration and creativity, producing an adaptive curriculum that changes based on project scope and emerging technology. This work will also increase sharing of knowledge through the distribution of open source code, 3D models, and research on immersive environments); (3) learning spaces (a dedicated space for the GCIEL will promote interdisciplinary collaboration and creativity, and support emerging forms of inquiry-based learning); and (4) post-graduation success (GCIEL programming, such as the speaker series, will facilitate networking and provide opportunities for students to make connections between GCIEL activity and internships, employment, and travel experiences).

Diversity and Inclusiveness:
The GCIEL will endeavor to create a working and learning environment that welcomes students, faculty, and staff from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The interdisciplinary nature of the projects that will be undertaken by the GCIEL necessitates the inclusion of people with these backgrounds and cultures, and also provides an opportunity for these backgrounds and cultures to be explored and discussed in a mutually supportive learning environment. In addition, the inaugural project of the GCIEL promotes diversity and inclusiveness by aligning closely with scholarly work being done at the intersection of the spatial humanities and Africana Studies. The documented ability of immersive environments to foster empathy in users also provides the unique possibility of teaching diversity and inclusiveness through a first-person perspective. Finally, by making short-term study abroad experiences available to a larger number of students whose lives and schedules may not permit a full semester of study abroad, the GCIEL supports the efforts of the college to provide all students with a meaningful study abroad experience before graduating.

Learning Objectives and Measurable Outcomes:
Although specific learning objectives will vary based on the type of project, general objectives could include (1) proficiency with hardware and software, measurable by industry standard certification; (2) the ability to think about problems typically encountered in a liberal arts curriculum and express possible solutions within a technology framework, measurable by survey, debriefing, and evaluation of the final product; (3) transfer of analytic and problem-solving skills acquired in a liberal arts education to a professional setting, measurable by survey, debriefing, and employer interview.

Innovativeness:
For the first time in human history, immersive environments allow users to assume the first-person viewpoint of another human being, to experience reality from the perspective of this person, and to be virtually immersed in recreated, remote, or even hypothetical sites. These environments hold the promise of providing innovative approaches to teaching and research and need to be more fully investigated. Users have complained about motion sickness from prolonged immersion in these environments and the force of some more disturbing immersive experiences, if not properly managed, can be emotionally jarring. Other challenges include the relatively high level of technical, design, and programming expertise needed to develop these immersive environments. These risks and challenges, however, can be managed through user education, appropriate trigger warnings, and a rigorous lab worker certification program.

Project Lead Qualifications:
Dr. David Neville (PhD, German Language and Literature; MS, Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences) has over 20 years of university-level teaching experience, 6 years of lab management experience as Director of Language Learning Technologies at Elon University, and expertise in the design and implementation of demanding study abroad experiences. Having a strong background in object-oriented programming (C#) for the Unity game engine (http://bit.ly/CodeDN) and 3D model development in Blender, an industry standard open-source 3D computer graphics software, he has published widely in national and international journals on topics related to immersive environments and digital game-based learning.

Suitability for Innovation Fund:
In the past ten years, 3D, VR, and AR technology has become more commonplace at institutions of higher education. Colorado College recently joined the HoloLens developer community; Wooster College is using VR to develop survivor empathy for victims of sexual assault; Juniata College is creating a plantation simulation that pulls in historic weather data; Hamilton College is building virtual recreations of a Confucian temple and the all-black township of Soweto; the University of Texas at Austin is recreating a historic English art exhibit; West Virginia University has partnered with Morgan State University to create an immersive VR tour of Selma, Alabama, fifty years after the Civil Rights marches there; and the University of Illinois at Chicago is developing a VR application to teach medical students empathy for geriatric patients. Many other colleges and universities are doing similar work. Innovation Fund support for the GCIEL would not only allow Grinnell College to quickly position itself among these institutions and establish itself as a leader in the field of immersive environments for educational purposes, but it would also produce new knowledge about the way these environments can be marshaled in the teaching and learning process. The GCIEL would, in the words of President Kington, assist Grinnell in becoming a “learning liberal arts college” that is constantly in pursuit of offering the best educational experiences possible. Three years of funding support would also allow the GCIEL to establish its workflows and a track record of project excellence, which would lay the groundwork for future external grant applications.

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