Teaching Culturally Relevant STEAM Concepts through XR

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Curious how to use XR in your classroom? We caught up with contributors to the SIGGRAPH 2020 Birds of a Feather session “Making XR a Reality for Teaching Culturally Relevant STEAM Concepts” to learn more about their backgrounds and what led them to collaborate.

SIGGRAPH: Talk a bit about the process for developing your virtual Birds of a Feather presentation. Were the concepts that you presented already being implemented in your careers, or did you need to develop them as you developed the presentation?

Loretta Cheeks, Ph.D. (LC): In 2018, Strong TIES, a nonprofit I founded in 2014, began introducing Black and other underserved students to Virtual Reality (VR).

While attending the seventh International Conference on Learning Representations (ICLR) in 2019, I met Victoria Rege, of Graphcore. Victoria and I had a wonderful conversation about AI as well as XR. After Victoria learned of Strong TIES’s efforts to introduce students to VR, she and Graphcore made it possible for me and two of my undergraduate computer science student mentees to attend the weeklong SIGGRAPH conference. During our talk, I shared the need for XR, VR, AR, and MR hardware and assets that were Black or Brown and women who look like ordinary women.

I then attended my first SIGGRAPH Conference, and it blew my mind to see the vast research, technology, and innovation on showcase with VR front and center. I had attended many technical conferences, primarily focusing on AI research, that paled in comparison to SIGGRAPH in terms of look and feel. I remember thinking, this is fantastic … the Cadillac of conferences! But, where are the people who look like me? “Black” people? Okay, maybe the conference is new and building a community. Well, that thought was interrupted when I met this wonderful man named Glenn Entis who decided to join me and my student mentees during dinner. Glenn shared that he had been to over 40+ SIGGRAPH Conferences. What?! I remember thinking, “I am so late to the party.” I attended a workshop for Education on VR led by Barbara Mones and others. I was interested in learning how similarly situated organizations (nonprofits serving Black and Brown students) were progressing in their efforts to create VR experiences and use this technology for educating.

After the workshop, the SIGGRAPH Education for VR committee and community began to meet regularly. COVID-19 interruption caused SIGGRAPH to be virtual, and the group began sharing proposed Birds of a Feather sessions. It became apparent there was a gap for addressing how VR is applied as an educational tool with students in underserved communities. To remedy the gap, I proposed the session “Making XR a Reality for Teaching Culturally Relevant STEAM Concepts.” I reached out to educators who I knew were using VR in their instruction and/or individuals who were experts in interactive and immersive computation. Hence, Amon Millner, Ph.D. (associate professor, Olin College of Engineering), Oyewole Oyekoya, Ph.D. (professor, Hunter College), and Kwaku Aning (director, Center of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking).

The concept for the session stemmed from wanting to create a conversation about access of XR in underserved communities and to bring awareness to the interesting approaches Black educators are using to introduce and engage students to the principles that drive XR technologies. For instance, science, math, computer science, game design, storytelling, physics, etc.

Strong TIES embeds culturally relevant approaches in all of its programming. As mentioned, in 2018, we began using VR for exploring the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Our students created VR projects to explore and express “Ageing in a Technology Era”, as ageing cut across the SDG on poverty eradication, good health, gender equality, economic growth and decent work, reduced inequalities, and sustainable cities. In 2019, we used VR to create data-driven storytelling to understand “Ending Child Marriage”, which is critical to eradicating poverty, inequality, and insecurity, as well as other obstacles that impede global development. Then, in 2020, we created STEAM in the Game, a national program offered virtually that introduces students to STEAM concepts behind VR technologies and eSports (i.e., entertainment technology).

Oyewole Oyekoya, Ph.D. (OO): I [joined the presentation due to my experience] implementing the concept of using a VR Club as a safe space for students to explore, play, and learn at Clemson University, prior to coming to Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY). The student-led VR Club opened the Immersive Space and hosted meetings and workshops on using virtual and augmented reality headsets to help students, faculty, and researchers develop VR/AR/MR projects. The VR Club worked to acquire and demonstrate in the Immersive Space “real-world” applications of VR and AR technologies. There is a plan to open one at CUNY after the pandemic.

Amon Millner, Ph.D. (AM): Much of my career has been dedicated to exploring emerging computational technologies and leveraging them for shaping tools and environments that allow young people, particularly those who have historically been excluded from STEM studies and careers, to create, learn, express themselves, and develop innovative identities.

Accordingly, I have explored augmented reality and virtual reality platforms for engaging learners at the college level and in K-12 settings. I incorporate media and contexts that relate to cultures that are a part of many students of backgrounds less-represented in STEM as a way to highlight how connected some cultural activities are to computing practices. I do so at early grade levels or at pre-career college ages, so that people representing a variety of cultures can more readily incorporate computing identities into ones they already wear proudly.

Additionally, people who represent dominant cultures in computing can get a sense that the field is richer than standard curricula and contexts would lead one to believe with a myriad of touchpoints to cultures that they also might grow to appreciate. In speaking with the other panelists as we prepared for the session, it was great to share perspectives about the types of connections and contexts that XR technologies could bring to life, in order to identify which examples from my work might be the best material for the session. For example, multiple panelists connected people to the many less-told histories of their surrounding neighborhoods. In one of my classes, it was having students design Snapchat filters about the places powerful Black and Brown figures of the past used to frequent. It was great to see the group respond well to leveraging history to help chart a more inclusive future for XR technologies.

Kwaku Aning (KA): In the spring of 2020, I was looking for a way to pilot an emerging tech camp online to make up for the camp that I had planned for the summer of 2020 but had to cancel. This idea led me to partner with the Bayha Group on their WorkWonder initiative through which I was able to combine students from my school with students from WorkWonder and make this learning experience happen. Although the concepts of having students leverage emerging technology to create content instead of consuming content is something that I have been utilizing for the past six years, this is the first time I was able to do this remotely. [This session at SIGGRAPH was a great opportunity to talk about that with fellow educators.]

SIGGRAPH: Given Birds of a Feather sessions were not recorded, can you share which area covered you think participants were most intrigued by?

OO: Attendees were interested in learning from our experiences on the amount of resources required to set up an XR space/center for institutions that serve underserved students.

LC: I concur with Dr. Oyekoya, “Attendees were interested in learning from our experiences”. As well, we thought it was important for the attendees to gain a perspective on the concept of “reality” through the lens of Black experiences. Lastly, we hoped to give a glimpse into the approaches and interesting ways we serve students in various regions of the United States — New York, Boston, Arizona, San Diego.

SIGGRAPH: Has the COVID-19 pandemic altered any of the practices and approaches you presented? How do you see these evolving in the coming years?

OO: Teaching XR is difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic. Students are required to develop VR and AR apps with the cheaper Google Cardboard VR or using smartphones for AR since smartphones have become ubiquitous. However, it’s not been feasible to build the VR Club at Hunter College due to restrictions and closures. High-end VR and AR equipment are still expensive but continual investment and appetite from consumers and industry will bring the costs down in the long run.

LC: I echo the sentiments of Dr. Oyekoya in regards to the equipment and physical restrictions. However, because we serve youth who often have never been exposed to XR/VR/AR, COVID-19 caused our organization to create a learning platform, the STEAM in the Game program, and curricula for teaching the foundational instructions of game design and computer science code. It was impossible for our organization to serve the 400 student participants across our nation with VR equipment.

AM: Although the pandemic made the lab where I have some VR equipment that students can share inaccessible, I did notice some students playing and interacting with accessible AR more than they might have otherwise. Some students could be seen during Zoom instruction using Snap filters that turn their heads into talking potatoes in real time and other fun twists to normal class experiences.

KA: The pandemic has validated the work that I did this summer by demonstrating that meaningful and dynamic learning experiences can happen within remote settings. In the coming years, I feel that the lines between learning mediums — Zoom (2D) vs. XR (3D) — will start to blur and, as technology improves and becomes cheaper, all schools will begin to integrate these tools into their educational settings. In my current position, we are looking to leverage what we have learned from virtual-learning environments to present our students with more options when choosing classes. 

SIGGRAPH: What advice do you have for someone looking to submit to Birds of a Feather for a future SIGGRAPH conference?

LC: Formative principle learned: ABCs.

  • A – Ask if you don’t know or even if you think you know; ask others who have pitched sessions in the past about the process;
  • B – Believe you can achieve; when you’ve done the work, know that it’s worth sharing and may be of value to others; and,
  • C – When we get to a street crossing, always check both ways to weigh your options to determine if it’s time to cross; include an organizing team who can give diverse perspectives for satisfying varying interests, ensuring subject coverage, and coaching for success.

AM: It is fun to spend time working with a person you have worked with before and one or two people you have not. Try to expand your network through the Birds of a Feather process.

SIGGRAPH 2021 is not yet accepting Birds of a Feather proposal for this summer’s conference, but look for information on our website soon. In the meantime, educators can submit content for the Educator’s Forum through 23 February 2021. Learn more about Educator’s Forum at SIGGRAPH 2021.


Dr. Loretta H. Cheeks is an AI expert, research scholar, consultant, and president and CEO of Strong TIES and DS Innovation. During her tenure, she has helped organizations gain dynamic data insights servicing enterprises, government, and nonprofits. Dr. Cheeks is listed among 10 Incredible Black Women in STEM, founding member of National Science and Technology Medals Foundation Expert Connect, featured guest on “Karen Hunter Show”, featured by Verizon on the International Day of Woman and Girls in Science, recognized as Change Maker at the White House, and NASA Datanauts. Dr. Cheeks holds a Bachelor and Master of Science degree in computer science as well as a Master in Technology Management and Doctor of Philosophy degree in computer science.

Dr. Oyewole Oyekoya is an associate professor at Hunter College, City University of New York (CUNY) and a member of the Doctoral Faculty of The Graduate School (CUNY’s Ph.D. Program in computer science). He obtained his Ph.D. in 2007 at University College London. He is a guest associate editor of Virtual Reality in Medicine (Frontiers in Virtual Reality journal) and a research topic editor for the same journal on “Virtual Reality and Mental Health: Opportunities to Advance Research and Practice”. He is also a recipient of funding from the National Science Foundation, Adobe Digital Marketing Research Award, and PSC CUNY Research Award.

Dr. Amon Millner is an associate professor of computing and innovation at the Olin College of Engineering. He teaches courses such as Designing Resources for Empowerment and Making (DREAM), Software Design, User Experience Design, Principles of Integrated Engineering, and Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship. A common thread through these courses is his justice-centered computing focus.

Kwaku Aning is the Director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Thinking at the San Diego Jewish Academy. He works primarily with K-12 staff to help them find meaningful ways to embed technology into instruction. Additionally, he works with small cohorts of students to help them develop original product ideas by leveraging design processes and emerging tech tools within XR, AI, and robotics. He is also a Micro-Resident at the Stanford d.School where he focuses on the democratization of emerging tech tools for all students.

[1] The XR market is enabled by more than just AR, MR, and VR as it also relies upon Artificial Intelligence (AI) and various AI-enabled computational capabilities such as Computer Vision. This is because AI enables XR to be more efficient and effective, such as appearance optimization of virtual objects, allowing the human viewer to experience them as they would appear as a realistic rendering in a real-world setting. In addition, the deployment of 5G will a combination of mobility as well as ultra-low latency required for XR. https://www.researchandmarkets.com/reports/4658849/extended-reality-xr-augmented-reality

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