Middle Schoolers Use Art, VR to Explore STEM

Madison Hines, a senior studying animation and interactive media, helps Korean students navigate virtual reality during their January visit.
Madison Hines, a senior animation and interactive media major, helps visiting Korean middle school students use virtual reality technology.

By David Perry

Their mission was Mars. But for two days in January, 25 grade-school students from South Korea landed at UMass Lowell, in the hands of Yuko Oda and four of her student aides.

Oda, an art & design assistant teaching professor who specializes in the places where art and technology meet, led the Korean students from Seoul-based Cheongwon Elementary School in sessions of 3D sculpting and work in virtual reality labs.

The program that brought them here, The STEM Initiative, was developed by Joe Blatt of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It seeks to excite middle-schoolers in South Korea about science and technology through research, critical thinking and designing and building projects. The theme of this trip was to plan a journey to Mars, from calculating the trip to designing and building test model vehicles.

During the first leg of their trip to the U.S., the students spent one-and-a-half weeks at Harvard University learning about Mars, figuring out how to get there and designing vehicles. Over two days at UMass Lowell, they worked with Oda and her student assistants, using the university’s state-of-the-art 3D sculpting and virtual reality technology in Mahoney and Dugan halls to build their vehicles.

Madison Hines, one of the UML students who assisted Oda, said the visiting students were quick to master new technology.  

“I’ve worked with kids before, but this is my first time with exchange students,” said the senior animation and interactive media major. “These kids all speak English, and they pick things up amazingly quickly. Some of them pick it up as fast as I can explain it.”

The exchange students, ages 9 to 14 and dressed neatly in school uniforms, were similarly impressed.

“I see 3D printers on YouTube, but seeing them for real and making something on them, I like that. It was easy to learn,” said fifth-grader Daniel Lee.

UML became involved with the exchange program last July, when the organization brought 20 prospective art students to the U.S. from South Korea. The director of the STEM Initiative asked Oda to prepare a program on virtual reality and 3D sculpting for the students. Oda’s presentation was impressive enough to earn her a trip to South Korea in September to visit high schools. There, she met the program’s organizers and learned her lesson plan would be incorporated into the STEM program.

“So this was sort of a pilot year, to try UML out,” says Oda.

“We are very inspired here,” Linda Min, the program’s organizer, said during the visit. “Collaboration is very important, and everyone is so helpful here.”

Not only is UML now a part of the program, but the organizers who accompanied the students in January also discussed the possibility of “running a one-week program at UML, either in the summer of 2020 or the winter of 2021,” says Oda. 

“We are in discussions now about how UMass Lowell can have a bigger impact on the Korean STEM program.”