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Mentoring through virtual reality: Pretty convincing

What better way to document the value of STEM mentoring than with an experiment?

That was US2020 Outreach Project Director Brett Brenton’s idea when he launched a virtual reality video project designed to capture all 360 degrees of a mentoring experience. The goal? To entice new mentors by providing them with a better sense of what mentoring looks like.

On this particular day in early February, that experiment looks like this: a 3D-printed contraption with six GoPro cameras attached to a pole on a tripod in the center of a colorful classroom, amid 20 or so busy fourth graders working in groups on science projects; a slightly breathless teacher moving amongst the students at lightning speed, checking their work and asking prodding questions; and a calm, focused mentor helping a small group of kids run tests to determine the characteristics of various white powders.

It’s part experiment in 360-degree storytelling, part endurance test.

US2020 matches mentors and students in efforts to provide greater exposure to science, technology, engineering and math learning opportunities for kids in Durham and Wake county schools. The desire and need among kids and schools for mentors is enormous, Brenton says, but the pool of willing and ready mentors is not.

“We have a hard time engaging mentors,” Brenton says. “One reason, I think, is that it’s hard for people to overcome the unknowns about what it means to mentor, what it would be like to work in these different schools and programs. That tells me that we are not adequately telling the story of what these opportunities hold.”

So why not use emerging technology to tell the story in a new way? Brenton got in touch with Mike Cuales, creative director for distance education and learning technology applications at NC State by day, and by night head of LEVR Studios, a startup he launched to explore the possibilities of 360-degree videography. Cuales saw the project’s upside immediately: A virtual reality experience of mentoring would, at minimum, tell a fuller story, and at best, convince potential mentors to sign up by showing them how rewarding and meaningful the mentoring relationship can be.

Now, as he runs in and out of the science class he’s filming at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh, Cuales is simultaneously waxing eloquent about the possibilities of VR for education — “When you see how much impact a mentor has in this classroom, you can just imagine the impact of making experiences like this available to kids everywhere through this technology” — and troubleshooting a learn-as-you go filming process in which the videographer can’t physically be ‘behind the scenes.’

“The end-user controls the experience in VR,” Cuales says. “They can look wherever they want to look – up, down, around. It’s a big challenge for the director. You are used to telling the viewer what they can see. Now they’re telling you.”

It also means that Cuales is setting his cameras, turning them on, and running out of the room while filming so that his presence isn’t a distraction to the viewer. “Half of these shots, I have no idea what will come out,” he says, checking the time as he’s waiting in the hallway.

Inside the classroom, the cameras are likely catching a few curious stares from the kids and a lot of activity. Janet Pride, the school’s science teacher and Science Olympiad coach, is managing multiple projects around the room: pasta tower building, ramp construction, dinosaur research, and the “Crime Scene Super Sleuths” who are testing powders with Kim Gervase, executive director of North Carolina Science Olympiad and, today, a visiting mentor.

“OK, this looks great,” Gervase says as the kids at her table share their theories on which powder vials hold flour, or salt, or talcum. “But what other tests have you run? You should never decide from just one test. Let’s add some water and see what happens.”

“It’s clumping, and it stinks!” says one student.

“It clumps! That’s a good word,” Gervase says. “You’ve got two more tests to try. Let’s keep going.”

Pride stops by the table to deliver news from the other side of the room: “The tower held up!” she explains as one of the tower’s young architects shouts, “This is the best day of my life!”

“And we are lucky to be here for it!” Pride says with a grin. “It really is so awesome to be here as they make these discoveries, as they see that they can do it.”

THAT is the joy of mentoring. THAT is what Cuales and Brenton are hoping to capture.

“You don’t have to understand organic chemistry to help these kids,” Gervase says. “You just have to be willing to help them find the answer. Ask them the questions that can move them along: ‘What can we do to get from here to there?’ The goal is to instill a love of learning, a sense that they can do it, that chemistry is cool. We want to help teachers and students find joy in those moments of discovery.”

Later, Cuales will download footage from his cameras and use special software to ‘stitch’ the scenes from all angles together into a seamless virtual reality experience. Will it convey the same excitement that Pride and Gervase and the kids feel in the room? It’s hard to know. But even if it captures just a fraction, it’ll be hard to deny the thrill and reward of mentoring kids through discovery.

“I just love the trial and error of the medium,” Cuales says. “There are few instructions. It’s just like what these kids are doing, what the mentors are doing. They’re figuring it out as they go. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Stay tuned for the results of this exciting experiment — and if you’re convinced by mere words that YOU could be a mentor, contact US2020 RTP to learn more about the many opportunities for you to make a difference.


Melinda Vaughn

Melinda Vaughn is a writer, editor, designer, and mother of two kids who attend Durham Public Schools.