Seeing Is Believing

Project Syria's VR initiative is building a new generation of global citizens

Grace Lau

Virtual Exchange Meets Virtual Reality

Monday, March 7, 12:45pm
ACC Ballroom EFG

It's a small world, but, as the old saying goes, you wouldn't want to walk it. For centuries, the only way to truly experience another culture was to visit it. Now international travel has never been easier, but it seems too much of the conflict-ravaged world is off-limits to the students most eager to learn about it. For Grace Lau, director of virtual reality for education nonprofit Global Nomads Group, technology can still help bridge the gaps of oceans and borders. She said, "When you put people in front of each other, whether it's face to face or in the virtual world, we found that they're able to draw out those natural human connections."

The purpose of GNG is to make students into global citizens. So far, the nonprofit has linked students in the U.S. to kids in South America, Thailand, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and nations across Sub-Saharan Africa – "places with the largest culture gap between the U.S. and abroad," said Lau. However, their biggest initiative at the moment is in the Middle East.

The core of this initiative was Project Syria, a collaboration with virtual reality pioneer Nonny de la Peña that connected South Central Los Angeles' View Park Preparatory Charter High School and Mahatta Community Center in Amman, Jordan. Originally commissioned by the World Economic Forum, this VR tool simulates the experience of being in a conflict zone. Lau said, "Through CGI, Nonny's team at Immersive Journalism re-created a street bombing in Aleppo, Syria. So with these headsets, the students in L.A. went through what it would be like on that street corner. Then we connected those students with Syrian refugees here in Jordan."

Lau said that the aim was to "move beyond the sensationalism of being a refugee ... to look at the roots of conflict, and really understand what the impact could be." However, this is a two-way street, with the Syrian and Jordanian students finding out more about life in L.A. The American students explained to them that they lived in a food desert, with extremely limited access to fresh produce. "Their Syrian peers, before the war, a lot of them were farmers and grew healthy food, and that prompted the students in the U.S. to plant a community garden in their own school."

Linking international students online isn't exactly new. Founded in 1998, GNG was an early adopter of video chat to connect classrooms, but, Lau said, "This was pre-Skype, pre-FaceTime, pre-everyday use of this technology." When Lau joined seven years ago, the technology was out of its infancy, but she described GNG's focus as remaining the same – building global citizens. She said, "Through our curriculum, we move through different activities that allow students to understand themselves in their community, and then have them learn about their partner community."

VR programs like that connecting L.A. and Jordan are just the next stage in fostering those connections. Lau said, "With virtual reality, we just see its inherent ability to foster empathy." This fall, GNG will launch a virtual reality lab, which will not only develop the successors to Project Syria; it will also provide professional development for participating teachers. She said, "The technology is new, we know that, and we also know that with new tools, educators will probably need a little bit of training."

Lau identified GNG's "sweet spot" as programming that is relevant to the day-to-day classroom experience of all students. She said, "We bring our curriculum and align it to the standards, to be able to integrate our programming into their classrooms as an enhancement, and as a way to really naturally bring our classroom materials into what is already being required of them." Yet beyond the report cards, she hopes to promote the "soft skills" that create global citizens: "Empathy, critical thinking, cross-cultural communication. There certainly is a long-term payoff of creating a cadre of everyday diplomats."

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Project Syria, virtual reality, SXSW 2016, SXSWedu, Nonny de la Peña, Grace Lau, Global Nomads Group, View Park Preparatory Charter High School, Mahatta Community Center, VR

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