Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
Confluence Center Awards Interdisciplinary Grants
Six interdisciplinary projects headed up by UA faculty members have received grant funding through the University's Confluence: Center for Creative Inquiry.
Heshan Sun and Mary A. Peterson, both University of Arizona researchers, are studying ways 3D visuals can facilitate student learning and enhance student engagement under a new grant funded by a University center created last year.
With the tremendous increase in online learning, Sun is using his UA Confluence: Center for Creative Inquiry grant to apply visual science to help educators better integrate 3D effects to enhance students' learning experiences.
"Everything has been exciting regarding technology," said Sun, an assistant professor in the UA School of Information Resources and Library Science.
The project, "Effectively Employing Three-Dimensional Effects to Enhance Student Engagement in Online Learning" in collaboration with Peterson, a UA psychology professor who directs the Visual Perception and Cognition Laboratory, is one of six funded by Confluence.
Confluence is providing more than $130,000 through two competitions: $25,000 to those awarded under Confluence Innovation and Collaboration Grants, and $7,500 for the Provost's Grand Challenges Grants.
"This may be the first grant for some of them," said Javier D. Durán, the director of Confluence, which was launched in 2010 to focus on the arts, humanities and social sciences with strong administrative support.
"The projects are very collaborative," Durán said. "It's an elevation of what they do."
Together, the newly funded projects represent efforts to lead creative, synergetic, interdisciplinary work, said Peter Beudert, a UA School of Theatre, Film and Television professor who chaired the selection committee. Also in the realm of seed funding, the grants are meant to help faculty members pursue external funding.
"The committee was attracted to the proposals that best fit the core concept of the funding purpose, which is also a core concept of Confluence: A Center for Creative Inquiry," Beudert said.
"This core concept is to bring together cross-disciplinary collaborations, which we also see as part of the University of Arizona identity," he added.
This year's other Innovation and Collaboration Grants recipients are:
- "The Koko Project: In Pursuit of a Mind to Mind Connection," led by Yuri Makino, an associate professor in the UA School of Theatre, Film and Television.
- David Gramling, a visiting assistant professor of German studies, has partnered with Aslı Iğsız and Chantelle Warner, both assistant professors in the same department, to initiate "Multilingual 2.0?"
- "Cultural Dimensions of Transborder Foodsheds: Interdependencies and Vulnerabilities within Sonoran Desert Water and Food Systems" will be led by Gary Nabhan, a research social scientist with the UA Southwest Center.
- "The Art History of Air and Water in Mexico" by Stacie Widdifield, a professor in the UA School of Art. The project is designed to connect scholars to study the "visual culture of natural resources in Mexico," ultimately creating a deeper understanding of the country's environment, its history and its resources.
The six projects were chosen from a group of 18.
"There are artistic works combining scientific and sociological exploration, intensive explorations of the process of learning and recognition and projects of great relevance to the economy of the Southwest region among the proposals," Beudert said.
"Many of the proposed projects had international visibility as well as regional impact. I was amazed by the high creativity of the research projects proposed," Beudert also said.
Makino's collaborators include Richard Lane, a UA professor of psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience, and also H. Dieter Steklis, a renowned primatologist who serves as chief academic officer for UA South. The team also will work with primatologists Netzin Steklis and Penny Patterson, Koko's caretaker of 39 years.
Lane and Steklis will be investigating the "uniquely human" abilities of Koko, the first gorilla trained to communicate via sign language. The two will run a set of experiments, studying how Koko understands others and also how she perceives of herself within the context of others.
Makino, a filmmaker, will document the pioneering research involved, which has the potential to answer questions about animal emotions, beliefs, intentions and self-awareness.
"What makes the project unusual is her capacity to use language," said Makino, who has also received a College of Fine Arts grant for the project and intends to produce a 25-minute film.
Thus, her interest in documenting the research is to show how scientists form ideas and develop a practice to study particular questions.
"It can demystify the scientific process and show that we move forward in our understanding of things by collaborating and talking through the creative process," Makino said. "Ultimately, I would like to educate people about the emotional and cognitive capacities of non-human animals."
Like Makino's work, Sun's project is considered forward-thinking and creative, with the potential to garner private funding for further research. Sun intends for the effort to result in pilot data that may be used toward pursuing external funding.
"A lot more, students need an environments that can help them learn more effectively," said Sun who, with Peterson, will be studying what effects of 3D objects such as color, location and orientation have on student learning via a course website.
The two, who have worked on projects together since last year, will develop sites for their investigating, using their unified knowledge around visual science and human-computer interaction to propel the current research.
For instance, some rely on 3D effects to teach medical students about human organs or computer science students about central processing units, or CPUs.
But Sun and Peterson want to ensure effects are being used more effectively and efficiently.
For the Confluence grant, Sun said he and Peterson are grateful.
"This project can have a real impact on student learning, which is worthy for UA and our community," Sun said. "Interdisciplinary collaboration is always difficult, but we learn a lot of things through collaboration and appreciate the Confluence Center for supporting this collaboration."