For students at Bryn Mawr College, augmented reality is more than just fun and games: it’s been an opportunity to learn how to develop on innovative technology platforms in real time.
Several Bryn Mawr students participated in a unique internship program to explore potential education applications for Microsoft’s HoloLens, an augmented reality (AR) device that superimposes 2- or 3-D images onto your environment, through a partnership between Pearson and Bryn Mawr College.
To date, the internship has been offered twice.
Linghan Mei and Hyunjung Kim, both juniors, participated in a three-week winter internship over the semester break. Their team worked together to build HoloMusic, a virtual orchestra application.
“It was very much a self-directed learning process,” Linghan says about the internship.
“My team and I had the creative freedom to really consider the real-world benefits of this technology and build a useful application for it.”
It’s all part of Bryn Mawr’s effort to provide students with hands-on experiences that help them develop a larger picture of STEM beyond the classroom—and put their skills to use in impactful ways.
“Experiential learning helps students see the connection between an academic setting and the real world,” says Jenny Spohrer, the Director of Educational Technology Services at Bryn Mawr.
Learning Through Action
When My Nguyen, a sophomore studying computer science, began the HoloLens internship last summer, she initially thought about potential applications for the device from a purely STEM perspective.
But once they started to think beyond their own expertise, My says, her team saw they could create a better app by thinking in a multi-disciplinary way.
She and her teammates spent their 10-week internship creating a virtual museum application called HoloMuseum.
“We realized that we needed to consider other perspectives,” she says. “So we decided to focus on a humanities application that could really benefit from the digital space of this technology—a museum.”
The team had a revelatory moment when Palak Bhandari, an educational technologist at Bryn Mawr, arranged for them to meet with Carrie Robbins, Curator and Academic Liaison for Art & Artifacts to the Museum Studies program at the college.
“[Dr. Robbins] helped us understand the real-world limitations of the physical museum space and how we could go beyond that using this technology,” My says.
“In a museum you can’t walk up close to an object or touch it—but technology allows you to view it from every angle.”
Helping students see things in a new way is a big part of what liberal arts educators hope to achieve through blended, interdisciplinary learning opportunities.
“Collaborating with a subject matter expert enhanced their experience and ultimately led to a better, more thoughtful app,” Palak says.
The Value of the Process
Participants in the internship program agree the process of developing a HoloLens application was just as important as successfully completing the project. Beyond the coding and development work that went into the final products, the students learned project management skills like creating a timeline and meeting periodic milestones.
“I had never worked with this kind of technology before—I’m a biology and German major!” Linghan says.
“But I learned that if you’re clear about your end goal, it’s not impossible to start from scratch. Anyone can put together the steps to succeed.”
As they collaborated, students also learned that social and emotional skills like relationship building and communication are as crucial to the success of a project as technological competency.
“More communication means more transferring of ideas,” Hyunjung says. “Once you understand the strengths of your team members, you can work through problems together more effectively.”
Empowering Women Through STEM
While she was participating in the internship, My and her teammate Nadine Adnane attended the Microsoft Hackathon in Philadelphia. At one point during the event, the emcee asked for a show of hands from anyone who had ever worked with the HoloLens.
Of the handful of attendees who raised their hands, only three of them were women—including My and Nadine.
“It was a crazy feeling,” My says. “I feel like it forced everyone there to recognize that women can be a powerful force in STEM.”
“We want to help our students claim the skills they need for the future,” Palak says. “But we also want to push back against the stereotype that women aren’t interested in STEM.”
The Classroom of the Future
“Augmented reality technology is at the point the iPhone was at 10 years ago,” Jenny says.
Meaning that the HoloLens and similar augmented and virtual reality devices could someday be a game changer in education—both in terms of accessibility and affordability.
Linghan, Hyunjung, and My all see the enormous potential for young programmers to help change things for the better through augmented reality technology.
“Our HoloMusic app, for example, would be a great way for students to acquaint themselves with various musical instruments if a school has limited funding for an orchestra,” Linghan says.
My also attended a workshop to learn more about how augmented reality technology can help people with disabilities.
“Thanks to AR, people with disabilities can experience things they simply cannot do in real-life,” My says. “That’s such a powerful tool—both in a classroom setting and the larger context of their lives.”