From left, Alex Spiezio, ’18, and Asante Asiedu, ’17, ’20G, organized a virtual reality expo on Thursday, Oct. 7, 2018 in Williams Hall. They both have been working with VR at Lehigh for the past three years. (Konka Shi/B&W Staff)

Students integrate VR in Africana Studies

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Kwame Essien, the interim director of the Africana Studies program, sees the value in bringing technology into the classroom.

“Sometimes when teaching is going on in class and you’re just glued to the readings and the videos, it seems like students benefit a little bit more if you actually take them to the site and show them exactly what you are referring to,” Essien said.

To highlight the importance of technology in the classroom and beyond, the Africana Studies program held an Immersive Technology Expo as part of its annual Africana Studies Day on Oct. 7.

The expo consisted of research projects from students in the department, a traditional West African board game called Oware and a speech from Diana Wilson, a recent graduate of the University of Virginia who founded the non-profit organization Yielding Accomplished African Women. Virtual reality goggles were also present at the event to give attendees an inside look at certain projects.

Asante Asiedu, ’17, ’20G, and Alex Spiezio, ’18, used their experiences working with VR technology to help Essien organize the expo.

They first worked on a project called Vertra, in which they created 360-degree VR tours of Lehigh’s campus and other popular locations in the community.

“We spent an entire summer at Lehigh walking around when the weather was nice and took a bunch of photos,” Asiedu said. “We pitched this to the Admissions Office, communications department and some of the marketing teams at Lehigh as a way for students who didn’t have the ability to travel to Lehigh, to see the campus and see what was around campus and in the area.”

After working on Vertra, Asiedu saw the potential of a new VR-tour project.

He approached Spiezio about making something similar to Vertra for Ghana. This idea was inspired by Asiedu’s mother, who wanted to create initiatives in Ghana in which technology could improve lives.

The project, which runs on Oculus Go VR goggles, is meant to show students different historical and tourist sites in Ghana.

“We had thought a good pivot from using virtual reality technology for Lehigh’s campus would be to use it for Lehigh’s Africana Studies department,” Asiedu said. 

Asiedu, Spiezio, and Miles Davis, ’16, ’18G, traveled to Ghana this summer to take 360-degree photos for Udeesa, an organization which works to show African citizens the power of technology.

Asiedu and Spiezio took advantage and sought out other opportunities while in Ghana.

“It happened that our time there intersected with the first annual Ghana Tech Week, which aimed to bring people from all over the world into one place to talk about technology and how it can be applied to boost the economy and bring all sorts of solutions to problems that exist in third world countries, especially in Africa,” Spiezio said. 

Their involvement in the Africana Studies program, as well as their VR experience, have given Asiedu and Spiezio the opportunity to spread their work and ideas outside of the Lehigh and Ghana communities. The two spoke at the Harvard Business Conference last year and will be speaking at the Wharton African Business Conference, the Africana Studies Association Conference and the African Association of Science Conference.

“Africana Studies is not just about studying the history and culture of African people,” Essien said. “Part of what we’re doing is using technology as part of what we do through learning, teaching and giving students the opportunity to take advantage of technology to expand their own horizons and their own research.”

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