Cal Poly Researchers Receive Public Interest Technology Grant to Utilize Virtual Reality in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Trainings

SAN LUIS OBISPO — An interdisciplinary group of Cal Poly faculty members has been awarded a $45,000 Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN)Challenge grant to further support the critical new field of public interest technology.

This funding will go toward a project that incorporates immersive virtual reality (VR) components into sexual and gender harassment, and LGBTQ+ affirming training. 

Working with partners including Cal Poly Saferthe Gay and Lesbian Alliance of the Central Coast (GALA) and the San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health Department, the researchers hope to understand where VR can be added to existing trainings in order to improve inclusion and equity at Cal Poly and in the community. 

The project will be led by James Werner, associate professor of media arts; Christine Hackman, associate professor of kinesiology and public health; Coleen Carrigan, associate professor of anthropology and science, technology, and society; and Jay Bettergarcia, assistant professor of psychology and child development. The project also will involve several student research assistants, who will help develop scenario scripts, conduct research activities and serve as liaisons between researchers and community partners.

“One of the issues with how current trainings are structured is that there is not an opportunity to put what you’ve learned into true practice and when you’re faced with responding to an incident of bias or harassment, it can be challenging to speak up or do something,” said Hackman. “The virtual reality scenario gives the user a scenario where something does appear to actually be happening and gives them a ‘real-life’ practice session.”

“We appreciate the support from PIT-UN for this project and believe it is an excellent example of how the field of public interest technology can create better informed citizens and support progress on such crucial issues like diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Werner. “We’re hopeful this project can create a better trained workforce and community that is better prepared to respond to and help stop instances of harassment and that the VR aspect can help us reach those who may be less likely to engage with current trainings and resources.”

The Public Interest Technology University Network is a partnership of colleges and universities convened by New America, the Ford Foundation, and the Hewlett Foundation. The network is dedicated to building the nascent field of public interest technology through curriculum development, faculty research opportunities, and experiential learning programs, in order to inspire a new generation of civic-minded technologists and policy leaders.

“Our work points to how important it is to make public interest technology a permanent and vital pathway in higher education,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of New America. “Public interest technologists are at the forefront of societal change and progress, and our students are leading us toward a more prosperous, more just, and more collaborative future. Institutional members of the University Network are already making big changes in our world.”

The network and challenge grants are funded through the support of the Ford Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, Mastercard Impact Fund, with support from the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, The Raikes Foundation, Schmidt Futures and The Siegel Family Endowment. 

Cal Poly became a member of the university network in early 2020. 

Contact: Keegan Koberl

December 16, 2020

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