Young professor creates VR toolkit to empower youth of color

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Two weeks ago, I was lucky to be able to interview Danielle Olson, a current EECS graduate student working with Dr. Fox Harrell in the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) at MIT. I worked with Danielle this past summer for the MOSTEC online and on-campus program of MIT’s Office of Engineering Outreach Programs (OEOP), but Danielle is also involved in the community in so many other ways.

Danielle founded Gique in 2013 while she was still an undergraduate studying EECS at MIT. Gique is a local 501(c)3 nonprofit that works to bring STEAM (Art + STEM) education to students through hands-on afterschool programs and workshops. One of Gique’s programs is called Science can Dance, and is co-taught by Danielle and Ashli Davis-Polanco, a Boston-based hip hop dancer and choreographer who is a current chemical engineering graduate student at UMass Lowell. They work to explain science concepts like electricity through dance and body movement to teach young kids that they don’t have to be just left-brained or just right-brained, but that both parts of their identity can co-exist and be better for it. Just this past summer of 2016, Nova created a short segment about Gique’s Science Can Dance program.

STEAM exists all around us, which is what Gique teaches to students through explorations of phenomena in daily life such as sneaker culture. By discussing everything from the shape design to the color engineering that goes into creating a shoe, Gique teaches students that scientists and engineers can do so much in addition to writing software or doing wet lab research. Whatever the students find personally cool undoubtedly includes aspects of STEAM that the students can choose to work on and explore in school and beyond.

Danielle puts so much of her passion into Gique because she cares about justice. “Education is the one thing no one can take away from you,” she explained. She does so much according to her belief that her personal success is tied to the success of the community, and that reaching to pull others up with her as important as reaching forward for her own goals.

Concerned about the current state of our society and the world, Danielle is motivated to shed light on injustices. “There’s always forces in human nature…that can bring out some of the uglier aspects of ourselves in terms of power and privilege,” she said. Her current personal and research interests deal with virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). Last semester, she was able to participate in a term project in Dr. Harrell’s ICE Studio Course (CMS.627/837) which provided the opportunity to contribute to Karim Ben Khelifa’s The Enemy project. It’s a VR experience in which an observer stands between two combatants from opposite sides and brings to the forefront our shared humanity. Her current dream for the future is to become a professor and release a VR educational toolkit to help young people realize their full potentials, which is at the core of Gique’s mission.

Even before high school, Danielle wanted to “travel the world and give voice to the voiceless.” Gique gives her the power to take her passions with her wherever she is and whatever she’s doing. She can continue to be authentic and give back to her communities even now as a graduate student and earlier over the past few years when she was working at Microsoft in Cambridge. Spending both her research time and her free time working on issues related to justice and education, Danielle embodies a spirit of dedication and caring, and there’s no doubt we’ll see a headline like that below pretty soon.

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Interview audio to be uploaded again soon

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