Mobile learning lab project takes first prize in bicentennial contest

From left, Shruti Soni, Shannon Sylte and Derell Griffin receive their award from "Campus of the Future" judge Babak Parviz after being named the competition's winner. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)
Originally published: 
October, 2017

By Safiya Merchant
The University Record

Mobile learning labs that embed the University of Michigan in communities, a vision to make classrooms come alive in virtual reality and the blueprint for a U-M campus on Mars took the top prizes at the "Campus of the Future" competition celebrating the university's bicentennial. Students on both the first and second place teams are Landscape Architecture students in SEAS, and that the fourth place team was also comprised of an interdisciplinary team of SEAS students.

The competition Thursday was the focus of the third and final President's Bicentennial Colloquium hosted by President Mark Schlissel, and served as a platform for students to showcase their innovations that reimagined teaching and learning at U-M and the future university experience.

Amazon vice president and Google Glass creator Babak Parviz, architectural designer Jenny E. Sabin, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, philosopher, professor and columnist for The New York Times, served as contest judges. In total, $30,000 was awarded to the winning student projects at the competition.

"We had a really rewarding day and it was terrific to talk to you and meet you, and I'm going away with lots of ideas that I hope I could use, and I know you will also have inspired each other by working together and by seeing each other's projects," Appiah said.

The U-M Mobile Learning Labs project took first prize, earning $15,000.

Mobile Learning Labs project team member Shannon Sylte said her team's proposal consists of outfitting a recreational vehicle or bus as a classroom or lecture space that can visit communities and be used to engage with community members in research. It could be used as a part of coursework and provide students with more embedded, experiential learning opportunities.

"They can use this mobile platform to break down institutional barriers and sort of tear down that ivory tower persona," said Sylte, a School for Environment and Sustainability master's degree student. "So our aim is to get rid of that and have the university serve this role of working with and for communities, more than being like sequestered behind these university walls."

As a pilot project, Sylte and her team members, SEAS master's students Shruti Soni and Derell Griffin, partnered with the Chandler Park Conservancy in Detroit, where the students developed 3-D models of a design for the park and placed them in a virtual-reality experience. The team went to community events to give community members the chance to engage with designs for the future of the park.

Sylte said this pilot is contributing to research on a platform through which people can interact with 3-D models to design spaces and then get graphic feedback on the benefits of their design.

"I also really like this notion of a dynamic university, that the university is not a static structure that sits in Ann Arbor," Parviz said. "It's like a tree that can extend its branches out to the community, much further than Detroit even if needed, and be present for some period of time and then come back here."

Before the finale event, 34 teams participated in the colloquium's student showcase, demonstrating to community members how their projects would enhance and transform teaching and learning.

The colloquium was organized by Joanna Millunchick, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, professor of materials science and engineering, and associate dean for undergraduate education at the College of Engineering, and Mika LaVaque-Manty, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and associate professor of political science, the Honors Program and philosophy. Both are Presidential Bicentennial Professors.

During the finale, Schlissel thanked the teams of more than 100 students who submitted projects to the colloquium.

"The University of Michigan's 200th year has given us this wonderful opportunity to look back on our history with purpose, to examine our impact on society and to consider how our university has continued to evolve," Schlissel said. "For this third and final colloquium, our future is the explicit focus. How will we extend our impact and value to society into our third century?"

The virtual-reality online campus project took second place, earning $10,000. The project calls for creating a virtual environment that hosts multiple massive open online courses, all delivered through the medium of virtual reality. That way, participants can experience the university campus from afar.

By using virtual reality, project team member and SEAS master's degree student Evan Granito said, participants can get the advantage of on-site education through an online course, since they can get a sense of place and feel like they're part of a campus with an identity.

Like a multi-player online video game, viewers can interact with their classmates and professors through the virtual-reality campus. In the virtual classes, instructional activities can even take place in diverse environments like the bottom of the ocean or in space.

"It's making education globally accessible, for one," Granito said. "I wanted to extend the reach of the university to the global population. As it says in our mission statement, we serve the world, not just the people in Ann Arbor, Michigan."

Parviz said the virtual campus project could solve major issues in higher education, including access, scaling and cost.

"I think fundamentally, if this works — and it could work — it can be multiple orders of magnitude cheaper to access," he said. "So we can provide quality higher education to a lot more people at a lot less cost."

The third-place team earned $5,000 for their blueprint of a U-M campus on Mars.

The team created a layout of the physical campus on Mars, along with conceptual plans for curriculum offerings and student life.

Team member and College of Engineering master's student David Szefi said the project drew inspiration from U-M's historical origins as a frontier institution spreading education through the U.S.

"So, for this new frontier, we wanted to be the premier learning institution for the human colony on Mars that we're assuming exists within 100 years," Szefi said.

Sabin said she learned a lot during the colloquium and thanked the students for bringing their visions forward.

"One of the things that I was most impressed by across all of the projects was the level of real collaboration across disciplinary boundaries," Sabin said. "That's not always easy to do."

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