Teaching children about “the real world” with new technologies
Three women graduate students at The School of Visual Arts are paving the way for the next generation of STEM leaders in partnership with Verizon and NYC Media Lab.
Frenetic silence fills the air.
It’s early in the morning, and technologists on the second floor of the Alley, an entrepreneurial workspace in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, quietly code at their long tables in the solitude of their over-the-ear headphones.
Surrounding the tables are floor-to-ceiling glass panels and doors that separate the main area into individual chat and meeting rooms. Occasionally the silence is disrupted by the chatter of members pitching their next game-changing idea. The dual spigots from the fancy coffee machine shoot hot caffeine into one of the many ceramic coffee mugs that otherwise line the shelf directly overhead.
On a mild day in February, three graduate students from The School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan gather in a back room at the Alley to review the progress of a technology in development designed to aide elementary school children.
The SVA students, who call themselves team Hubble, are one of 12 groups participating in the Verizon Connected Futures Prototyping and Talent Development program in partnership with NYC Media Lab, an organization dedicated to driving innovation and job growth in media and technology by facilitating collaboration with the City’s universities and its companies.
The program, now in its third year, awards New York City university teams for the creation of new prototypes; this year’s partnership holds a specific investment in virtual and augmented reality (AR/VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Verizon launched the program to invest in cutting-edge prototyping and to form a pipeline with universities to seek out the next generation of talent.
Every week the teams meet with a mentor from Verizon’s Envrmnt, an AR and VR innovator, who provides them feedback in the development of their project; students receive commercial, creative, and technical mentoring.
Amy Ashida, Christine Lawton, and Amsha Kalra remove their laptops and sketches from their bags. Their project is modest in theory but complex in practice: making abstract concepts simple to understand.
Using computer vision, AR Markers, and projection, Ashida, Lawton, and Kalra transform the act of sitting around a globe in a classroom and make it interactive and digital.
“The concepts of day and night, seasonal change and time zones can be difficult for elementary school children to understand,” Ashida explained. “When I use a physical globe I can point to a country and find its location. But it doesn’t tell me about these difficult theories about why it’s nighttime in this country and daytime in another. We’re trying to build a mixed reality tool to help aid teachers in the classroom.”
The team pulls up a video to show an example. They stare at the black screen on the wall as a digitized Earth appears and begins to spin.
In the foreground, a white circle meant to simulate the sun emerges. As the sun moves horizontally across the screen, portions of the spinning Earth gradually became dark to simulate nighttime.
Lawton gazes at the screen.
“There’s an incredible amount of math needed to produce this,” she says. “After placing it in the 3D environment, we needed to calculate how fast the Earth rotates and the Earth’s relation to the Sun. We’ve been working on a product called Leap Motion that we are using to do gesture motion as well, so the gesture of someone spinning a physical globe will be the same as spinning the digital globe.”
Ashida adds, “So if I’m a teacher, I’m able to project a 3D globe into the middle of the classroom, turn the globe with hand gestures and show children what’s going on in different time zones. When it’s winter here [pointing to a country on the physical globe], it’s summer here [pointing to an area at the opposite end of the globe].”
In many ways, it’s building an interactive planetarium for the classroom.
Inspired by women pioneers
Team Hubble is one of four all-woman teams competing in the Connected Futures program, but their experience is among the most diverse.
Kalra comes from a family of doctors and is originally from New Delhi, India. She described an upbringing full of math and science, but said she often found herself to be one of the few woman in the science and math classes in school.
“There are three tracks that were available to me in high school: medicine, non-medicine, and the arts,” Kalra explained. “Most women ended up taking the arts track because their families pushed them in that direction, and they knew they would become housewives after their education. I was lucky, though. I grew up in an environment where science was everything I was around, so it pushed me into the STEM field.”
That background built the foundation for Kalra’s career, which was in information technology engineering before she enrolled at SVA.
For Lawton, the daughter of parents who work in technology and the sciences, and Ashida, the daughter of a designer, STEM topics were dominant in their lives.
Since March is Women’s History Month, which recognizes the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society, the team reflected on the women who have made valuable contributions in the STEM field, and who have inspired them in their own careers.
They cite Haiyan Zhang, innovation director at Microsoft Research Cambridge; Grace Hopper, a trailblazer in programming the first computers; and Sally Ride, the first American woman to fly in space, among others, as their inspirations.
There is a theme among the women they cite: all have paved trails in their fields and have been advocates for closing the gender gap in tech.
“If you have half the population that is not represented in the products that are being created, then the products will not reflect them or serve them the way that they should,” Ashida explained. “On an elementary or middle school level, those are the points in time that you see the gap widen, and so keeping girls excited about STEM topics, especially at a young age, will pay dividends down the line.”
Kalra added, “It takes a lot to break down the barriers that you experience in life. It’s an odd feeling if you’re surrounded by men all the time in your classes, but you have to be able to pursue what you want to study. You just have to keep pushing through.”
Mentorship, technology and networking
The mentorship the students receive is something they cherish. Specifically, the opportunity given to them by Verizon and NYC Media Lab to work with technologists, engineers, and innovators in their field.
“We had the opportunity to take this project, which was in its infancy a year ago, and really ramp it up because of the interactions we’ve had with folks at Verizon and NYC Media Lab,” Lawton said. “It’s given us motivation to continue working on the project and extend it to the next level.”
For the three women, having the opportunity to work with students from other universities in different programs in New York City has also been a highlight.
“Our program is only 17 students and we know each other pretty well,” Kalra said. “We don’t really have the opportunity to see where we stand in relation to other schools around here, so it’s refreshing to be exposed to students from around the city who are also part of this program. Since we’re so close to the project, it’s important to have new perspectives and ideas given to us since we already have our own biases associated with the project.”
The chance for the teams to connect at the Alley is a unique opportunity in itself. The space serves as a broader vision around what Verizon has built in partnership with Alley: a purpose-driven platform to empower technologists and entrepreneurs through Connected Futures and other tech-driven programs. Each Alley location is a curated community powered by the emerging technologies and thought leadership of Verizon.
As their presentation ends, team Hubble packs up their bags and moves to one of the transparent rooms to join their fellow cohorts. It’s part of their weekly check-in with their mentor and with each other to evaluate the progress of the project.
Their goal is to continue working on the “interactive planetarium for the classroom” after their fellowship ends, and they are encouraged there’s been interest in the product from educational institutions.
For now, though, team Hubble is content designing, innovating, and blazing their own path for the next generation of female leaders in STEM.
Team Hubble thanks Wolfgang Gil, Scott Cowell, Josh Musick and John Leonard for their help along the way.