Innovation Fund progress report

It’s been a while since I have posted anything in my blog. Moving forward, I would like to be more open with the work I am doing in developing VR experiences for the digital liberal arts. What better way to get back into the blogging saddle than to post my Innovation Fund Progress Report (End of Academic Fiscal Year 2017-18) for the Grinnell College Immersive Experiences Lab (GCIEL):


The Grinnell College Immersive Experiences Lab (GCIEL) is an interdisciplinary community of inquiry exploring new ways to approach the liberal arts through three-dimensional (3D), virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR) technologies. The lab received one-year planning project funding ($10,000) in Fall Semester 2016 to explore the feasibility of using these technologies to teach liberal arts topics at the college. Grant money was fully spent on a summer workshop to introduce faculty and staff to 3D/VR/AR technologies and to fund the student development team working on the Uncle Sam Plantation pilot project. Following the success of the planning project, the lab received three-year pilot project funding ($144,000) in Fall Semester 2017. This grant will allow the lab to launch other projects, advocate for 3D/VR/AR technologies at the college through the creation of a speaker series, and purchase new hardware and software.

Assessing the project

Goals of the one-year planning project grant were to (1) introduce faculty and staff at Grinnell College to 3D/VR/AR technologies; (2) launch new digital liberal arts projects with these technologies as the primary means of investigation; and (3) create new interdisciplinary development teams to advance these projects. Based on the model devised for the Uncle Sam Plantation Project, these teams would consist of faculty, staff, and students who come together around a project, research this project in depth following an inquiry-based learning process, augment their investigation of the project with site-based research when applicable, and then use 3D/VR/AR technologies as a platform to synthesize and present their findings. In the process students learn to work across interdisciplinary boundaries in an agile team setting, develop a “systems thinking” about the project subject matter, and acquire training in industry-standard software that can help them secure internships and employment opportunities after graduation.

Workshop feedback suggests that participants found the workshop to useful, well-organized, and insightful with regard to how 3D/VR/AR technologies could be used to augment teaching and research. Two participants used the workshop to launch their own projects: a VR environment to capture full-body motion data (Dr. Damian Kelty-Stephen) and a VR Mathematical Museum to teach mathematical concepts and history (Dr. Chris French). To evaluate the effectiveness of the planning project as a teaching and learning platform, Dr. Vanessa Preast, Associate Director of the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, conducted interviews of the students working on the Uncle Sam Plantation project. The edited interview transcript suggests that the students felt the experience helped them to learn about interdisciplinary communication on long-term projects, become comfortable working in collaborative teams, become familiar with industry-standard software and tools, make intellectual connections between different courses and curricula offered at the college, and create strategies for managing ill-defined problem spaces.

Project highlights

Last year has provided GCIEL with several opportunities for introducing 3D/VR/AR technologies to faculty and staff at Grinnell College, expanding its project portfolio, and increasing its national profile. Highlights include:

  • Created a robust social media presence with a public website, YouTube channel, and Twitter feed. Project development has been documented on the Uncle Sam research blog, with hashtag-indexed microblogging on the GCIEL Twitter feed (#GCIELUncleSam, #GCIELBeowulf, #GCIELPsychLab, #GCIELGermanTown).
  • Created a GCIEL GitHub site to assist in code versioning, management, and open source distribution.
  • Invited to participate in the creation of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) “7 Things You Should Know About AR/VR/MR” white paper.
  • Worked with Dr. Sarah Purcell to create a poster presentation on the Uncle Sam Plantation Project for the HASTAC 2017 conference. The poster received a “Top Three Print Poster Award” at the conference poster competition (YouTube video).
  • Collaborated with Dr. Damian Kelty-Stephen, Dr. Elaine Marzluff , Dr. Sarah Purcell, and Dr. Liz Rodrigues to draft a chapter proposal on using immersive computing technologies to expand teaching and research in the liberal arts for the edited collection Redesigning the Liberal Arts: Innovative Program Design for 21st Century Undergraduate Education to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. Our chapter has been accepted for inclusion in the collection.
  • Presented on VR project development at the Grinnell College Digital Liberal Arts Fair 2017, with a custom-built VR experience demonstrating work being done on a tutorial room, an interactive art exhibition, and the Uncle Sam Plantation project (YouTube walkthrough | GitHub repo).
  • Conducted site-based research in January, 2018, for the Uncle Sam Plantation Project in Louisiana (student and faculty reflections can be read on the project blog).
  • Expanded project portfolio to include a VR simulation of the Uncle Sam Plantation (Dr. Sarah Purcell); a VR environment to capture full-body motion data (Dr. Damian Kelty-Stephen); a VR Mathematical Museum to teach mathematical concepts and history (Dr. Chris French); and a VR recreation of a Viking mead hall (Dr. Tim Arner). Full descriptions of these projects can be found on the GCIEL projects page.
  • Interviewed and hired 10 students for positions on the project development teams (Unity developer and 3D modeler) Subject-matter experts for the team have been provided by team faculty advisers.
  • Created an alpha-level prototype of a VR game to teach glass recycling and waste management systems in German public spaces (GitHub repo | YouTube video).
  • Began developing the Uncle Sam Plantation project, including the creation of 3D model assets in 3ds Max (YouTube video) and writing C# code for state management and user interactivity in Unity (GitHub repo).
  • Identified Dr. Emory Craig (Digital Bodies – Immersive Learning Consultation Group) as the inaugural speaker for the GCIEL Speaker Series beginning in Fall Semester 2018.
  • Presented with Dr. Damian Kelty-Stephen on “Using VR to Promote Interdisciplinary Collaboration in the Liberal Arts” for the ELI Online Event | eXtended Reality (XR): How AR, VR, and MR Are Extending Learning Opportunities.
  • Submitted an NEH Advancement Grant (Level 1) to fund the development of three open-source VR games with supporting instructional materials to teach sustainability, conservation, and environmental protection within the linguistic and sociocultural contexts of France, Germany, and Spain. A two-day workshop featuring subject-matter experts in game design, digital game-based learning, instructional design, VR design, inclusive and accessible design, and second language and culture acquisition will augment the development of the VR games.

This work has laid a solid foundation on which GCIEL can expand and grow in the coming year.

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