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NSF grant awarded to study how augmented reality could pique girls' interest in science

January 31, 2018

How do you attract young women to science and technology careers where they continue to be underrepresented? “Designing augmented reality (AR) stories and games offers one potential effective strategy,” said Dr. Cathlyn (Cat) Stylinski, a researcher at University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s (UMCES) Appalachian Laboratory. She and her colleagues received a $1 million three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to explore using AR design experiences to pique teen girls’ interest in science and technology.  

“The AR Girls project will help us understand how we can use media design to promote science and computer science interest and confidence among young women who do not see themselves as science-types, opening the door for them to consider related career pathways,” said Dr. Stylinski, an expert in public engagement with science who has led outreach and research efforts throughout Maryland and the Central Appalachians, as well as across the nation.

The AR Girls project focuses on one aspect of scientific work--science communication--that may be more attractive to youth who think science is about memorizing facts and conducting experiments. The project takes place in Maine where the team will work with local art organizations to recruit teens who have demonstrated an interest in art. These young women will partner with scientists and media designers to create and share AR stories or games that address science questions and issues relevant to their communities.

AR superimposes digital media on the real world, famously experienced through the Pokémon Go! game. The AR Girls team believes that designing these rich multimedia experiences will demonstrate that doing science includes communicating about science, which will be compelling to these art-oriented girls.

The AR Girls team will provide this experience of working with scientists and designers on AR-based science communication and study the impacts on participating teens’ interest and confidence in science and technology careers and their perceptions of what it means to “do science.” This project will also provide insights in how scientists can better engage with the public around science topics and issues.

With a focus on rural populations, the project will target 112 young women who will gather for two weeks in the summer and several days during the following fall. They will showcase their AR stories and games for family, friends and other community members at a culminating fall event. The participating art educators will receive training and support to continue offering the AR experience beyond the grant.

The AR Girls project is a collaborative effort among several organizations. In addition to Dr. Stylinski, other team leaders are Ruth Kermish-Allen, Maine Math and Science Alliance; Amy Kamarainen, Harvard University Graduate School of Education; Martin Storksdieck, Oregon State University Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning; and David Gagnon, University of Wisconsin Institute for Discovery.   

The Appalachian Laboratoryis located at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Frostburg, Maryland. Scientists conduct research on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, including air and water quality, wildlife management, land conservation, and public education throughout the world, with an emphasis on the rich and diverse environments of Western Maryland and the broader Appalachian region.