Brown Bag Series showcases service learning VR, geographic information system research

This March, professors Yong Lao, Jessica Lovell and Christine Valdez shared their research projects as part of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science (CAHSS) Brown Bag Series. The Brown Bag Series, which started in September of 2019, aims to connect the local community to strides in faculty research within the CAHSS. Lao spoke about vehicle miles traveled (VMT) as it relates to per capita and socioeconomic demographics, while Lovell and Valdez focused on the use of virtual reality (VR) to enhance the School of Psychology’s service learning program.

Lovell and Valdez have been recipients of two Innovation in Teaching and Learning grants, and have used them to revamp the service learning psychology course that they teach. In a study they conducted with School of Psychology alumni, they found that those who had had service learning experiences did not marginally improve in their empathy skills. For four semesters, the two have assessed the use of VR technology in increasing students’ self reflection and drive to assist others.

Inspired by Chris Milk’s TEDTalk on the use of VR for increasing empathy, Lovell and Valdez incorporated elements of VR into their curriculum. For one, students were assigned to watch 360 videos on headsets simulating the experiences of blindness, autism and refugee status. In addition, students went through an interactive experience on homelessness using the technology in California State University, Monterey Bay’s VR lab.

Based on surveying a small population who had gone through the latter experience, students have grown in their ability to empathise with the homeless. For instance, students came out of the experience more disturbed by the idea of homelessness and were less likely to believe that homelessness was caused by personal deficiencies.

Fourth-year Frederick Siglar, who is a research assistant under Lovell and Valdez and took their course, said, “It definitely inspired me to look at what changes I can make. As with the experience of actually conducting the experiment, I saw that it’s actually a very effective experience for the students to have.”

While their data is yet to be conclusive and their survey does not tackle empathy directly, it’s a step in the right direction in the quest to foster empathy.

Lao, who teaches within the School of Social, Behavioral and Global Studies, takes particular interest in geographic information systems. His work over the last two years has revolved around VMT, a key indicator in passenger transport and traffic volume data. VMT is used in measuring traffic congestion, air pollution and gas tax revenues.

“I definitely liked the idea of monitoring the traffic that goes through, it definitely gives us an idea of the emissions from vehicles and how that might affect our environment,” Siglar said.

Lao sought out two goals in his research: to find correlation between VMT and socioeconomic variables, and to devise a better way to capture the many facets to VMT data.

Lao focused on California counties, drawing connections between urban and rural counties’ VMT and VMT per capita. One of his overarching findings was that urban counties have many more drivers that travel much shorter distances (high VMT, but low VMT per capita), while rural counties have less drivers that travel greater distances (low VMT, but high VMT per capita).

While VMT has nearly perfect correlation with some socioeconomic variables, such as the total labor force or number of registered automobiles within a county, Lao described VMT per capita as “inelastic” for predictive purposes.

Using multivariable clustering, a type of machine learning, Lao divided California into five county clusters with diverse populations but similar characteristics. These divisions would be much easier to collect VMT information in and would better define where VMT-related greenhouse gas reduction policies should be enacted.

“It helped me put in perspective the whole driving experience for people in California,” Valdez said.

An April 2020 installment of the Brown Bag Series is to be expected. “We don’t have a lot of forums for sharing between other faculty … it’d be great to have sharing about research and scholarships between departments in the college, so we can get to know eachother better,” Lovell said.

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