Tagged interdisciplinarity

Conference attendees are pictured from the side, under dramatic Russian Orthodox church windows.

A Conversation on International Collaboration in Digital Scholarship


Russian translation by Kseniia Tereshchenko | Russian Translation (PDF).
Arabic translation forthcoming.


The conversation published here among three “bridge” figures in global digital humanities took place on January 25, 2021, over Zoom as part of the program of Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities Week (SPbDH) 2021. Each of the speakers has each been instrumental in organizing digital humanities events in their respective communities: NYCDH Week, SPbDH Week and the NYU Abu Dhabi Winter Institute in Digital Humanities (WIDH). They have also cooperated with each other in sharing experiences, expertise, and in some cases programming. They all met in person at a NYCDH Week event hosted in early 2020 by the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute entitled “International and Interdisciplinary: Collaborations in DH Research.” SPbDH week has traditionally been a place-based event, as has the NYCDH Week; both events even carry the name of the city in their title. Over time, these events (along with the WIDH in Abu Dhabi) have served a community-building function, making them all the more meaningful. In 2020–2021, the pandemic put this focus on place under a significant amount of stress, making it impossible to convene in person. Yet, as difficult as this period has been, we do believe that it offered a unique opportunity to reflect on questions of international, institutional cooperation among like-minded colleagues, thinking particularly about how dialogue about the internationalization of DH ultimately feeds back to our local communities. The moderator of the panel was Lada Zimina.


Lada: Hello, dear guests and colleagues! I am very happy to welcome you to the opening panel for the third annual Saint Petersburg Digital Humanities (SPbDH) Week. The topic of our discussion today is Think digitally, act humanely: building DH communities locally and globally.” Our speakers are Kimon Keramidas, Associate Professor at Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, NYU and also co-director of the International DHLab at Informational Technology, Mechanics, and Optics University (ITMO University); David Joseph Wrisley, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi; and Antonina Puchkovskaia, a director of the DH Center at ITMO University and the founder of SBbDH Week. To begin today, Antonina, I would like to ask you to tell us a bit about your experience in the global DH community and your work consolidating the local DH community in Saint Petersburg? How do DH weeks, both NYC and SPb, fit into your story with DH?

Antonina: Thanks for a very good question. I suppose everyone who is doing DH has their own story about how everything started. With a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies, I ended up teaching at a very STEM-based University like ITMO (Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics), and I’d started to think about how I may bridge two different universes—Humanities and Computer Sciences. I did some research and discovered a pretty promising co-location known as Digital Humanities. I dug deeper and was nicely surprised and excited about the manifesto, agenda, and most importantly the community, which from the onset seemed quite open and friendly. I started looking for events that gather DH people together. Within the first lines of my Google search was NYCDH week, the event which later became a model for our SPb DH week. I proposed a workshop on how to turn your Humanities course into a digital one. Not only was I accepted and got to run my very first DH workshop, but I met all those wonderful people (among them was Kimon) who were very supportive and helpful, answering all my questions about the fundamentals of DH.

When I returned to Saint Petersburg, the first thing I did was to talk to our first vice rector about launching a DH lab. Being a great supporter of different interdisciplinary initiatives at the university, she gave the green light to establish a small DH research lab, and Kimon continued to advise me through the whole process. A bit later, our DH lab team was awarded a grant from our university for developing an interactive map of Saint Petersburg with a specific focus on relations between the landmarks and famous people associated with them. This project now exists as a web and mobile application, and it also contributed to building a DH community in Saint Petersburg, especially by integrating the local into the international.

In four years, we have succeeded in launching a Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization (DCV)  with a track in Digital Humanities, and the DH lab grew into an International DH Center co-directed by Kimon. Still having great support from our university, we are now more focused on community development and recruitment for our Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Science. We have run the annual SPbDH Week for three years now and the trend is quite convincing: we tripled the number of workshops, lectures and lightning talks within the week (despite the global pandemic) and, most importantly, increased our community fivefold. The geography of the participants is also very impressive: people come from Moscow, Perm, Vladivostok, and other Russian cities either to give or attend a workshop. This year, we went even further and organized an international panel. The DH community is very helpful and friendly and that is why we will continue to develop our local community hand in hand with the international community, dedicating our resources and energy to make more DH projects collaboratively, making more data available, open, and shareable, and creating more interesting discourses around it.

Lada: Thank you, Antonina! Talking about SPbDH Week, I would like to add a small personal observation of my own. As a member of the organizing committee, I noticed that in Russia quite often people who use digital methods in their own area of expertise and who are willing to offer a workshop are not really familiar with the term “DH.” In that perspective, the event is really about community building, because it shows the researchers that they are not alone and that what they do actually has a name and a community behind it. Moreover, we have many cases when speakers or guests stay in touch with the Center or even work with us as lecturers.

Kimon, can you tell us how and why DH week started in New York? What was your motivation as an organizer? And how’s it going?

Kimon: Within New York there are many large institutions: Columbia, NYU, the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, Fordham University, Hofstra University, and Pace University, and all of the cultural heritage organizations as well. Unfortunately, what happens is that these places are big enough to become insular. With NYCDH, we’re trying to foster a really open community outside of those bounds. NYCDH is a non-institutional, inter-institutional organization, so we’re not reliant on any single university or organization as a center. Running NYCDH in this way is based on the recognition that good work in DH often necessitates collaboration between different types of people. David, Antonina, and I all are used to collaborations, whether those collaborations are with other professors, data services, or librarians, and the events we organize are an opening for these kinds of collaborations.

NYCDH Week started because we wanted to share existing workshops at different institutions, but it was complicated by different curricula. So, we decided to create a structure completely outside of that. It began small, but has grown beyond our wildest expectations. In 2020, we had more than forty sessions and over 800 registrations. This year we only had thirty-two sessions—because of COVID—but we ended up with more than 1500 registrations, and included sessions being run both through NYCDH in New York and others organized at NYU Abu Dhabi. We were even thinking of aligning with Saint Petersburg DH Week to create an even greater sense of global simultaneity. People are starving for these kinds of gatherings and look forward to NYCDH week every year.

NYCDH Week is a movement based on the idea that we can change DH work within the academy by developing a community of people who are willing to give their time, be open with their work, share information, and create networks of participation. I know of an enormous amount of connections between colleagues that have been created through NYCDH Week, our graduate student awards, and web platforms.

The next step is figuring out how you manifest those experiences and interests into programmatic changes back at your institution. At ITMO, we’ve made a significant amount of progress, going from virtually nothing to having a successful Master’s program in just a few years. There are further possibilities in Moscow and in Perm to expand this in Russia, and David has been doing this work in the Middle East for twenty years in both Abu Dhabi and Beirut. Our hope is that we can bring together these three places that aren’t often in collaboration in Russia, the Middle East, and in the US or New York.

Lada: Thank you, Kimon! Do you have something to add, David?

David: Thank you for the invitation to join the conversation. As I listen to the two of you speak about the way the community is emerging in Russia, and particularly in the context of ITMO, I am really pleased to see what you have achieved. It’s quite remarkable that the institutionalization of DH has taken place so quickly. It is a testament to the passion and focus with which you have worked, but also to the openness of the future-oriented approach of your institution. In many places in the world, there’s a lot of interest in digital research in the humanities, but not a lot of action. It can be, for many people, a scary jump.

I remember some ten years ago when we had our first event in the Middle East, in Beirut, and then participating in some of the different community models that Kimon brought up: the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) (University of Victoria, Canada), the European Summer University of Digital Humanities (ESUDH) ( Germany), NYCDHweek, and then returning home to think about how to adapt those community models to our local environment. Localization is not an easy process.

You’ll have lots of eyes on Russian DH this year with the European Association of Digital Humanities (EADH) annual conference. So, congratulations on getting this going!

Lada: Thank you, David! We are actually really excited about the upcoming conference in Krasnoyarsk, as our DH Center together with the colleagues from the State Hermitage Museum, the Institute of Russian Literature, and the Museum of the History of Religion are organizing a panel aimed at community building, entitled “Digital Humanities Researchers and Cultural Institutions: Towards Productive Interaction” (see Puchkovskaia et al. 2021). We think it’s important to connect DH researchers from academia and specialists from the Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums (GLAM) sector. I really hope the panel will help to consolidate the local DH community and maybe even some collaborative projects.

David, do you think DH brings people together, or does it create new forms of isolation and specialization? Could you also tell us more about your personal experience with DH research in the field of medieval studies and if the digital methods are welcome in that community?

David: My research interests have been diverse. First, I am trained as a comparative medievalist, but I have also lived and worked in Arab countries for most of my career. In the last decade, it’s not surprising that I have been working on new ways to bring the digital to those two communities: medieval studies and the Arabic-speaking world. Sometimes they overlap for me, but for the most part they do not.

I have experienced both an expansion of my community and some forms of isolation in my career. Integrating the digital into one’s speciality subfields is an entirely different endeavor than working to build a transdisciplinary DH community. There is a vibrant community of digital medievalists in the world, but they are still somewhat marginalized within medieval studies. I believe that the situation is slowly changing, and we may be less isolated post-pandemic, but it is fair to say that most medievalists are not involved in digital research. In specific specializations—say, digital medieval studies in Arabic, French, or Latin—the percentage drops significantly. What this means is that if you are doing digital humanities community building aimed at a larger audience, then your audience is much wider than it would be in a specialized field.

Shared methodologies most certainly bring people together. Imagine that a medievalist’s daily interlocutors could be Americanists, art historians, computer scientists, or linguists working in entirely different languages. It is often said that in universities, the digital is increasingly providing common vocabularies for a wide variety of research and community building amongst researchers. There’s a commonality in the challenges that we face—in the ways we produce our data and manage our research—which is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.

Working simultaneously in a transdisciplinary space, where our colleagues have very different ways of working, and in a specialist subdomain, interacting with domains close to us in the organization of knowledge, can be both challenging and very rewarding.

Lada: Thank you, David, for setting such an encouraging tone to the discussion. As for Saint Petersburg, and maybe even Russia in general, I feel that we are not quite there either. Hopefully big events, like EADH2021, will promote DH in Russia and boost the community-building process. Kimon, being a New Yorker, what are your thoughts on the same question? Does DH unite us, or does it separate us?

Kimon: I’ve learned a lot watching David because he has reached out internationally, building coalitions and relationships in what can sometimes be a provincial community. New York is large enough that people can often find enough relationships to stay working within that community. The same can be said for DH communities around Washington, D.C., and Virginia, and Southern California, where there are enough people that a kind of regional DH identity even begins to take shape. But as you begin looking at the situation globally, with DHSI in Canada, in Leipzig in Germany, and of course David’s work across the Middle East, you realize that it takes different textures of collaboration to work with different people in different communities. This is particularly important in this continuing period of transition, as people doing DH are still facing resistance in traditional disciplinary environments. That’s where occasions like SPbDH Week, NYCDH Week, and WIDH are so valuable, because they highlight that there are networks you can tap into to find like-minded people.

One thing Antonina and I talk a lot about with regards to ITMO is that the path to growth here is from the technical to the humanities. It’s the reverse from how it occurs predominantly in the US at least, and it is an intriguing challenge as you determine how best to transmit these ideas to an unfamiliar audience and how to engineer these collaborations.

What I appreciate about DH communities is how different people can come together and look for balance. You can engage with someone and say, “You do something completely different than I do but we probably have some common thoughts and make each other’s work better.” I think that that eagerness is probably a global trend that still benefits a lot of people. And the people who are eager to put that foot forward tend to be slightly more gregarious and open to the conversation rather than resisting. It takes that kind of nature, so it creates a good community right now.

Antonina: I would like to add something about how at ITMO we are trying to complement our skillset with the competencies we lack. Our institution is very STEM-based and we lack a strong Humanities faculty, so our way of bridging the gap between Humanities and digital technologies was to engage with the GLAM sector in Saint Petersburg. Luckily, we have plenty of cultural institutions in our city and they have shown a willingness to collaborate on questions of common interest, such as database architecture for collecting and storing data, building user-friendly interfaces, expanding a user base through digital storytelling, etc. The additional benefit is that we have also found a great number of people who are motivated and encouraged to learn more and to collaborate on DH projects. I would also like to highlight that establishing these relationships is an ongoing process, and it is very time- and energy-consuming. But it is really worth it. And in our case, working with such wonderful institutions as the Museum of the History of Religion, Mayakovsky Central Public Library, the Institute of Russian Literature, and many others, helps us both to build and develop the DH community and to represent cultural heritage and memory in digital environments. Furthermore, these cultural institutions become places for our students to do internships. It is a win-win for both academia and the GLAM sector.

Lada: Antonina, you mentioned the Master’s program that you run at ITMO. What are the challenges that you face while designing and running a Master’s program in DH? How do you explain digital humanities to your administration and other faculty at ITMO and how do you teach the field to students who may be completely unfamiliar with its methodologies and terminology?

Antonina: That’s a very good question and I believe an open one. I would like to answer it from two perspectives, both from the position of an academic leader of our Master’s program in Data, Culture, and Visualization and from the role of a DH educator. Designing a two-year Master’s program at the intersection of Humanities and Computer Sciences, I had to take a lot into consideration. First of all, I meant to build such a program for students with various backgrounds. So, developing a curriculum I focused on including more project-based modules, which allow students to work collaboratively and complement each other’s skill sets. Second of all, I tried to design a curriculum around fundamentals of digital technologies adapted to students’ varied skill levels, such as the most popular programming languages (Python and R), database development, data mining, UX/UI, visualization, text analysis, project management, etc. Moreover, I always wanted to introduce our students to a vibrant, multidimensional, and multilingual world of DH, by regularly inviting colleagues to participate in various hands-on workshops, guest lectures, reading groups, and summer schools.

Starting from the second semester, our students choose from two tracks provided at the program: one is in Digital Humanities taught in Russian, and the other is Cultural Analytics taught in English. Beyond the difference in the language of instruction, these two tracks also differ given the nature of the data students work with. In the first case, it is digitized data and in the second, born-digital data. So, choosing from these two options students are basically choosing between working with cultural heritage or digitized literary texts, in the former, or content found in the media, in the latter. Depending on the track, students are likely to learn about OCR (optical character recognition) and NLP (natural language processing), or digital storytelling and network analysis. As an academic leader of the DCV program I do believe that diversity is key, but this is especially true with DH education. So, my goal is to provide as many options as possible, so every student will be able to build an individualized educational trajectory, thereby fully realizing their potential. Teaching and co-teaching various DH courses at ITMO and Tartu University and giving lots of guest lecturers has allowed me to expand my teaching philosophy in DH. Most of my teaching has been focused around developing and curating DH projects. This includes not only acquiring necessary practical skills in data mining, data analysis, and visualization, but also in building a strong argument by asking research questions and analyzing what particular digital technologies are needed in each case and why. I call it “critical DH thinking” and usually highlight that, even though the applied skills are also very important, developing critical thinking will help to build more sustainable DH projects. To sum it up, the more I teach or do DH, the more I discover what is still to be learned and redesigned.

Lada: Thank you, Antonina! It is, indeed, so wonderful that we have three professional educators in DH at the table today. David, what are your thoughts on how to teach DH?

David: I love the topic of how the digital is changing the way that we teach and learn! One answer to your question of how to teach DH lies in the values embraced by your institution and how they are evolving. To give you an example from my own position: I arrived at NYU Abu Dhabi having worked for a long time in relative isolation on my digital projects at my previous institution, the American University of Beirut. There wasn’t institutional momentum there to create new courses and to imagine teaching as integrative and connected to faculty research. In my current position, there are multiple stimuli that have encouraged me to bring my research into the classroom. I have benefitted from the presence of an Arabic natural language processing (NLP) group, a vibrant Art Center with projects and commissions in digital or data-driven art, an active interactive media program, as well as the research center of the nearby Louvre Abu Dhabi. Those partners in and around my institution have most definitely contributed to my growth as a teacher-scholar.

There are lots of DH syllabi that you can find on the web and copy, and there are lots of methods that can be transferred to most parts of the world. I certainly did this for a certain phase of my teaching. But teaching DH has become less of a methodological checklist and more of an engagement with the common values of my institution and communities as they grow. When your DH courses align with those higher goals, there is much more room for DH to contribute, and to be valued, at home.

Antonina: I totally agree with that point that cooperation with other departments at ITMO, in particular Computer Science, helps us a lot, not only in teaching various courses at the DCV program but also working together on projects. We also collaborate and co-teach some DH courses together with colleagues from other DH centres in Russia bringing together students and cherishing diversity and openness. Moreover, as I have mentioned previously, we are closely connected with our partners from cultural institutions in Saint Petersburg and these collaborations have resulted in student internships, paid internships, and the expansion of student portfolios. This enlarging network is what makes us a community and allows us to make DH projects more meaningful and widely publicly available.

Lada: I would also like to jump in and add a little from the perspective of both a student and aspiring young researcher who is making her first steps in the field. First, when it comes to collaboration and education in DH, I think that in the program my fellow students and I have a lot to teach each other. Given that we come from different backgrounds, some of us are better at coding and others are better at finding good research questions and have a deeper understanding of cultural data. DH taught me that it’s ok not to know something—and for someone with an A-student complex, that was quite a discovery. I really love how helpful the community is, because really when you dive into DH, you push yourself far out of your comfort zone, no matter what background you come from.

And Kimon, I suspect you have something to add to this discussion.

Kimon: I’ve been working on these questions since I started my PhD program at the City University of New York in 2001, before the term “digital humanities” entered popular use. As a theater history PhD candidate, I noticed that we were for the most part studying play scripts because that’s what’s left from a production, and this ephemerality is one of the reasons it is hard to study the history of theatre. I began working in CUNY’s Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate program to consider ways to gather all the artifacts from a performance to bring them to public history. Many of the faculty in that program were involved in creating the textbook Who Built America, which tracks the history of America from a labor perspective, rather than following the traditional “great white men” narrative. Along with the printed book version, this textbook was available as an interactive CD-ROM in the late 80s. So here we can see—decades before we even started using the term DH—that academics were doing work  driven by the idea of expanding education and the reach of academic discourse.

So my perspective has always been to get information into people’s hands, using the new media we have to best contextualize the knowledge we produce. In building my DH syllabi, I wanted to avoid saying, “Here are the big names and tools in DH that you have to learn about,” and instead focus on how living in a complex world is intrinsically affected by the digital, and how do we understand that through method. So every time we talk about databases for the humanities, we also consider that our personal and health records are also somewhere in a database—and what does that structure mean to the way you are viewed by systems as a series of data points? How does the setup of that information affect you in your daily life? The goal therefore is to continually keep everything in a larger context and perspective.

Lada: Thank you, it’s really fascinating to follow your discussion, so let’s keep on talking about education and dissemination of DH. In light of the digital having become an integral part of our everyday lives, how do mixed methodologies in DH open the possibilities for scholarship that are more public, open, and designed to engage with the larger audiences?

Kimon: In the last decade in the US, we’ve seen how profoundly digital media can affect daily life, as social media has expanded and everything has been consumed by the internet. In my teaching and research I have been trying to figure out how the digital landscape affects us daily, how it affects the culture of consumerism, and how as academics and producers of knowledge we can bring all those points together. To these conceptual methodologies I would add visualization and website development, to reveal the potential of design in creating more engaging modes of narrative and storytelling. Because, in the end, we are all living some part of our lives in these public digital spaces, which, despite the problems they are creating, massively open up our ability to create innovative teaching platforms, share information, and build communities.

My connection with the theater, material culture, and web design has put me in a place where I want students to know how they can reach audiences through web development and design, which has arguably a lower threshold than more complicated analytical techniques. To do very advanced text analysis you really need to understand the fundamentals of statistics and the algorithms, but to do web development, you start to understand the discursive and aesthetic challenges and possibilities that come into play for presenting your work for a broader range of audiences. I teach a course on the American Hardcore Punk movement, and we focus on understanding one particular cultural moment to better understand how we use different modes of expression to generate activism, critique society, and carve out a space for our voices today. With that kind of platform, we can then look at subsequent related movements like Queercore and Riot Grrrl as well as reflecting on current flows in art and activism to understand their historical progenitors and the uniqueness of movements of the moment.

I ask students to think about how they can use the ethos of Hardcore to reach out and tell their own story. The most recent iteration of the course developed an amazing website, which was an experimental product of creative ingenuity that far exceeded what a stack of research papers alone would have accomplished.

Lada: We have a little bit of time to talk about our current concerns, and I would like to address the next question to David. So, David, how did the pandemic influence the global academic community and what perspectives do you see for international collaboration under the current circumstances?

David: Thank you for the question. Pre-pandemic, there were many DH events taking place in local environments around the world. An example of one such event we have heard about is NYCDH Week. Now, in New York it’s easy enough to move around the city from institution to institution for a week to experience this co-learning, co-teaching event. Not all cities have such a large community, however. In places like the UAE or Lebanon, where I have spent the majority of my professional life, the number of DH practitioners is very limited and we often rely upon international relationships to grow our projects and our community. The advice that I got a decade ago from a senior practitioner in the field when I asked how to start working in DH was to do three things: attend a THATCamp, enroll in a DH summer school like DHSI, and attend the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) annual conference. Back then, to attend such a faraway event required many months of advance planning. I imagine that we could do oral histories about the DH week-like events that have taken place around the world, focusing on how they played a transformative role in introducing researchers to digital methods.

The pandemic did not bring about a total shift in the ways that people have accessed training in digital methods—there were certainly some events taking place online before—but it has accelerated the process, and there has been a marked increase in people who want to engage in such learning. Over the course of 2020, with the large-scale adoption of remotely broadcasted events, I have witnessed a rapid opening up of local environments to global audiences. There have been all kinds of opportunities to listen in on many different conversations in different parts of the world now —far too many for a single person to follow. An interesting question to ask ourselves is which of these learning opportunities will remain virtual and which will pivot back to in person meetings? I believe that a professor of digital humanities should not only do research of their own, but also model new forms of research for their local environment, and in this respect, like Antonina, I spend quite a lot of time learning about what is going on in the world of DH in order to bring it back home. In 2020, the sheer abundance of conversations going on in digital humanities research and their connectedness has been challenging, but also exciting, to follow. As I do so, I am always asking myself how to match what a growing local community wants and needs and how to match it with global research trends. It’s a process of connecting the dots.

Another interesting question for me is what will a world of scholarly communication look like post-pandemic? There are so many people envisaging, and even prototyping, different modes of communicating or different modes of scholarly dissemination and communication. Even if we have not been traveling for this last year, we will no doubt get back on planes to go to professional meetings. I do wonder how we are going to spend our time and how we are going to manage the very new kinds of access that we have experienced. I think there’s a lot to be said about this last topic of post-pandemic scholarly communication, which stretches beyond the topic of today’s panel, but which will impact the ways that international collaborations continue to be founded and sustained. I guess that the way forward for research that I imagine, especially in remote places where there are smaller numbers of local researchers, will be fewer in-person conferences and meetings, replaced instead by longer stays or exchanges abroad for teaching, team building, or intensive exchange. Synchronous video conversation platforms like Zoom are, after all, great for exchanging ideas, in pick-up conversations with people you already know, coming to consensus through team discussion, or for certain kinds of scholarly dissemination, but what about all the other ways we communicate and do scholarship?

I don’t think we have fully considered what it will mean to be in person anymore, what the added value of being in the same space will be, let alone how connected to the rest of the world we will be when we are back in person in our local environments. I’m sure that there will continue to be great value in teaching in person, but for research, we still have to figure that out. Will we be able to have hackathons and sprints online with the same results? Will we meet in person for more reflective activities, such as ideation, planning, and writing? Or simply to foster the social bonds that support collaboration? What will happen to our colleagues who joined in the conversation during the pandemic for whom passport privilege and crossing borders are not a given?

During the pandemic I experienced so many interesting new kinds of interactions and experimental engagements. Obviously, not all of them will continue as we transition back to our offices and campuses. It is worth thinking, however, about how we will do digital humanities when we are together as opposed to when we are apart, as well as the role of the international collaborator in the local area. New forms of hybrid collaboration are certainly on the horizon beyond our current circumstances.

Kimon: I think the sprints are a good point. Sometimes when you really want to accomplish a significant amount, you need to be around your colleagues for three days in a row, eight hours a day working, including in-person time over dinners. So it’ll be interesting to see now that we’ve had this extended experience with telecommuting, how we will move forward. We haven’t gone through something like this trauma in the world for over a hundred years and we’re going through it now in a very different kind of time with specific technical, socio-economic, and pedagogical challenges. There has been a lot gained from this period in getting things working in a short timeframe, but we also need to sit back and consider which changes have been for the better and which really shouldn’t be repeated.

It’s hard to teach workshops in general using teleconferencing tools; some such as photogrammetry were extremely difficult to do. When I teach a workshop I move a lot around the room. I’m looking at everyone’s screens troubleshooting problems, showing students what they might have in common and how they can share knowledge, and making the learning environment engaged and participatory. On the flip side, while we had fewer sessions for NYCDH Week 2021, we had hundreds of more people register for workshops. So there is a new interesting mix of variables that we have to consider and that we will have to adapt to. Hopefully, we’ll find a really fruitful middle ground that balances all of these things. As David notes, a lot of us are thinking about it already: what’s the best way to transition things. We are fortunate in our positions that we have already looked to transcend geographical challenges, and now we are armed with better tools and more familiarity with approaches to closing the gap between these three locations: Saint Petersburg, Abu Dhabi, and New York. So trying to find ways to mitigate those distances while remembering the benefits of locality and presence is going to be the trick.

Antonina: Yeah, and I would like to add a little on that topic. I agree completely that professional networking is the most valuable thing that happens at a conference. In the end, this scholarly network is the most valuable thing you have. What you pay for when you travel is to build these relationships, and from there you can develop them through these digital tools and means like email and Zoom, but it’s really hard to establish strong relationships and community by only communicating online.

You can just work using emails, Zooms, Microsoft Teams, but I think that this is a very good lesson the pandemic taught us, that not all the things can be shifted online. We still have this “humanities” impact. We even have in Russia this funny word for “madness”— безумие/безZOOMие (a madness created by Zoom)—which has been in the media for a while. That’s true, it’s madness, it’s too many Zooms, all the calendars are packed, and people can call you at nine in the morning and that’s fine because they live far away.

I like that we’re finishing up this discussion before we move on to questions thinking about the future because DH is also about the future. We try to preserve things, we try to make them available and that’s an important part of our work as well. We want to preserve our community and chart a path for the future as well.

Lada: Dear colleagues, thank you so much for such an interesting and insightful discussion—we covered some perennial issues of DH as well as some current challenges and concerns. Now we have a little bit of time left to open our discussion and attend some questions from the audience.

Question from Nadezhda Povroznik, Head of the Center for Digital Humanities, Perm State University: When it comes to DH, is it possible to be only a medieval scholar or just a historian focusing on a narrow topic, or is it more encouraged to find the solutions for a wider range of questions? If so, how does this impact the way that we think about the focus on tools? 

David: Your question reminds me of the question I received earlier where I was asked to reflect on how DH supports either integration or isolation, or perhaps both, in scholarship, and whether it only makes an intervention in a field of speciality or instead it builds some kind of larger community. For me, the way that I responded to a changing world of digital humanities around me depended on the moment of my career (I am currently Associate Professor). When I launched my first independent digital research, I made the strategic decision to work on a project on my own. I wanted to build my skills, make a first foray into digital humanities, and to be able to link the conclusions to the scholarly field that I knew so well. I started in digital humanities without an active community in my immediate surroundings; my collaborative research began with faraway scholars. There’s this very interesting shift in my publications that took place around 2013/2014 when I began to co-publish. It’s not that I abandoned single-authored research, but since this particular work was collective, it made sense to publish together. With colleagues in computer science we now tend to publish a variety of articles on the same project for different audiences, highlighting the multidisciplinary contribution that our work makes. It’s tricky to straddle knowledge cultures, but it has become the way that I balance my career now. You can do that when you’re a little bit more advanced in your career. When you’re younger, it’s harder to do, for sure.

In the end, it is about taking risks that your institution is willing to support. One of the key things in North America we have been witnessing is how, increasingly, professional organizations are creating guidelines for review that include digital scholarship in the evaluation process. This effort really relies on senior colleagues, because they sit on the boards of those professional organizations and on the editorial boards of journals. Mid-career faculty who value digital scholarship have an important role to play also in mentorship and advocacy.

Question from Larisa Krayeva, PhD, Assistant Professor at the faculty of Technological Management and Innovation, ITMO University: It’s more of an observation than a question and I’m not sure if it’s relevant…. Well, you see, I teach philosophy to students from all sorts of technical backgrounds at ITMO, and during your discussion it occured to me how my personal experience applying different approaches teaching philosophy to different groups of students—like engineers, chemists, medical student etc.—can be similar to your experience, finding the common ground with scholars from other humanities backgrounds in DH.

David: I have something to say about the different kinds of students who are not necessarily specialized in questions of the humanities. I am lucky to have my position in the Arts and Humanities Division, but I don’t teach students exclusively who are concentrating in topics in the humanities. There is definitely an advantage to this model, namely that you are able as you say to “build common ground” across disciplines and tap into very different interests and skillsets for a truly interdisciplinary experience. In fact, I have heard over and over from students who are not majoring in humanities subjects that they never knew that such a field of inquiry existed, and that it was amazing to be able to think across and between fields. Of course, one of the minor disadvantages of having only individual courses offered in a “standalone” fashion is that they are not developmental or sequential, allowing students to build skills over time as you would want if you had students specializing in the domain.

Question from the audience: What is the most important thing when you get into the DH? What should you focus on first?

Kimon: It’s very important to inspect the tools and to critically evaluate the methodologies before starting. Many of these tools have hidden processes that you need to understand the implications of in order to do competent research. You can’t just download an NLP package and start throwing stuff into it. You can download topic modeling tools and you can run them over the web or locally and then you can start trying to figure out what those words mean, but topic modeling is a complex statistical process that does very specific things to text to create a certain kind of output. If you don’t know what it does to create that output, you may arrive at incorrect or ill-informed conclusions. That’s why it doesn’t hurt to have technical knowledge. It doesn’t hurt to understand what an algorithm is; it doesn’t hurt to have some programming language. We don’t just start using a database. So becoming aware of the texture of the tools and methodologies and establishing a critical sensibility is the strongest foundation you can have.

David: Working with data, and working with the digital more generally, takes us outside of our comfort zone. So my suggestion might be to work to create some data about something that you know well and do so in familiar surroundings, and then try to evaluate as a group how well those data represent the thing that you think you know. It’s important to recognize that in the digital world we necessarily distort things by representing them as abstraction or by formalization. So I think it’s worth thinking at that level about the relationship between the digital objects that we’re creating and that which we know.


The ongoing phases of the pandemic have affected different parts of the world in different ways and at different times, exposing inequalities and different states of readiness and ability for communities to mobilize in moments of crisis and necessity. In the digital humanities, we have also listened with a critical ear to changes discussed within the academy: maintaining certain types of hybrid learning, alternative delivery of content, and even remote education as a means of expanding markets for higher education. These proposed initiatives suggest both change and instability in the years to come.

Our conversation about the practice of international collaboration was carried out in a period of flux where there was not as much time for reflection as we would have liked. Obvious points of discussion arising from this roundtable discussion which deserve further attention include the future of the digital humanities community event as national or regional scholarly cultures expand from basic training toward more specialized work, as well as the potential of hybridization of in-person events both to increase access in the scholarly community and to reduce the carbon footprint of our academic endeavors. On the other hand, we feel that it would be unfortunate if local digital scholarship were the only sort to prevail in the coming years. We hope that our thoughts published here will keep the discussion of international collaboration in digital scholarship moving forward, encouraging others to explore what kinds of new roles it might play.

We recognize that collaborative international dialogue takes a lot of energy and labor, as well as a certain kind of personality and commitment which the academy does not often support. The speakers at this panel are quite proud of their cooperation, and of how their efforts have influenced communities of practice far away from the location of their academic positions. For this reason, we have decided to publish the text of this conversation along with Arabic and Russian translations of it to foster critical discussion with JITP’s readership and the new worlds of digital scholarship coming into focus in these languages and cultures. We trust that this translingual initiative will further the goal of transnational dialogue in global digital humanities and will inspire others to build such bridges.


Puchkovskaia, Antonina, Lada Zimina, Pavel Aleksandrovich Tugarinov, and Maria Sergeevna Bakhteeva. 2021. “Digital Humanists and Cultural Institutions: Achieving Efficient Collaboration.” Panel session. European Association of Digital Humanities 2021, Krasnoyarsk, 23 September 2021.

About the Authors

Antonina Puchkovskaia is an Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at ITMO University (Saint Petersburg, Russia), where she teaches various Digital Humanities courses. Her research interests include cultural heritage representation and visualization, spatial humanities, and digital infrastructures. She is a director of the International Digital Humanities Center and also a program leader of ITMO’s MSc in Digital Humanities, which aims at creating well-rounded data professionals who have strong statistical and technical skills combined with strengths in research, communication, and design. Antonina is one of the 2018–2019 Willard McCarty Fellowship holders at the DH Department at King’s College London. She is a founder of Saint Petersburg DH week and has been organizing it for four years.

Kimon Keramidas is Clinical Associate Professor of Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement and Affiliated Faculty in International Relations at New York University. He is also Co-Director of the International Digital Humanities Center at ITMO University. Kimon’s research and pedagogy take place at the intersection of media and technology studies, cultural history, sociology of culture, and experimental humanities. Kimon’s work includes cultural heritage and public history initiatives with international organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution, the State Hermitage, Rubin Museum, Zayed University in Dubai, and the University of Leicester. He is a co-founder of New York City Digital Humanities (NYCDH) and has been organizing NYCDH Week for eight years.

David Joseph Wrisley is Associate Professor of Digital Humanities at NYU Abu Dhabi. His research interests include comparative approaches to medieval literature in European languages and Arabic, digital spatial approaches to corpora, neural methods for handwritten text recognition across writing systems, and open knowledge community building in the Middle East, where he has lived and researched since 2002. He co-founded the Arab world’s first two digital humanities training events: the Digital Humanities Institute Beirut (dhibeirut.wordpress.com) in Beirut in 2015 and the NYU Abu Dhabi Winter Institute in Digital Humanities (wp.nyu.edu/widh) in Abu Dhabi in 2020.

Lada Zimina is an Assistant Professor at the International DH Center at ITMO University (Saint Petersburg, Russia). She has recently graduated from the masters program in Digital Humanities that enabled her to apply IT onto her Bachelor background in Museology and Heritage Management. Her research interests include memory studies, cultural heritage representation, and digital collections. She is a co-founder of a biennial conference on Digital Local Studies.

A flow chart demonstrates an app's information architecture

Interdisciplinary Approach to a Coping Skills App: A Case Study


Rich learning opportunities exist when academic departments reach beyond their discipline. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we organized an interdisciplinary team to create a mobile app to measure and support mental health through better coping skills education in the local community of Erie County, Pennsylvania. Guidance on how to develop a professional level organization at an undergraduate academic institution for app creation is sparse. Best practices in developing this environment are needed. This article describes how we, a team of four educators and three students, created the mobile app. The process mimicked a professional development team with many adjustments. The arrangement of the team and the process taught the students teamwork and gave the educators an opportunity to collect meaningful data on the local population. The methodology included adaptations from industry in a project planning guide, requirements gathering processes, user testing processes, prototyping and iterations. Development encountered several unanticipated challenges with the need for two institutional review board approvals, consultation with an attorney, hosting challenges, and Google Play Store hurdles. We suggest that future academic teams plan for these challenges at the outset. This interdisciplinary experience is a complement to any digitally-oriented classroom and is a nice introduction for students to gain the needed skills to advance to Startup and Tech Accelerator programs already in place at many universities.


Rich learning opportunities exist when academic departments reach beyond their discipline and engage with each other. Interdisciplinary approaches are key to success in independent business entities and they allow a team to “engage with their ideas, maintain productive interaction, and successfully implement these ideas” (Brodack and Sinell 2017, 10). Interdisciplinarity broadens the knowledge base of a project team, taking full advantage of the specialized knowledge of its members while avoiding the peripheral blindness often associated with such specialization. When managed correctly, creative problem-solving outcomes are enhanced (Moirano, Sánchez, and Štěpánek 2020), silos are merged, and focus limitations associated with specialization are removed (Blackwell et al. 2009). Working on a project within an academic environment is no different. Students have specialized knowledge and often a preconceived perception of a problem. Collaboration with those outside their field broadens their interpretation of and approach to a problem while allowing them to use their special skills with external input. Developing a mobile app requires the technical skills of computer scientists, the knowledge of subject matter experts, and the expertise of user experience researchers. Here, we present a case study of a successful app development process as a blueprint for others to follow with a discussion of tools, activities, time budgets, resources, challenges, and potential impact.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, two psychology faculty members (a clinical psychologist and an engineering psychologist) and one computer science faculty member collaborated along with the corporate liaison at the university to address the increased need for coping skills in the local and student community (Fernández et al. 2020; Naeem et al. 2020; Saltzman et al. 2020). We received a grant and hired two undergraduate students and one graduate student to work with us. This article documents our wins and lessons learned in order to help other academics bootstrap the process.

Research is clear on the significant negative effects resulting from the COVID-19 Pandemic. In addition to significant physical health risks, there are substantial increases in the rate that individuals are experiencing mental health symptomatology such as distress, anxiety, sadness, and isolation (Kar et al. 2020; Pierce et al. 2020). Unfortunately, there has been less focus placed on increasing our ability to address mental health concerns at a systems level even in the face of rising pathology (Kar et al. 2020).

As a result of the pandemic, there is a shift within the mental health field towards providing more services remotely (e.g., meeting with a therapist by webcam). However, that shift does not address the increasing demand for mental health services. Thus, there is a significant need to develop other digital avenues to try and reach individuals in need (Ho 2020). According to Ho (2020), apps developed for smartphones to provide users with psychoeducation, resources, and coping strategies may prove especially useful to help meet increased mental health needs during the pandemic. Previous research demonstrates the viability of using smartphones to integrate mental health services through technology. Digital apps have been created to monitor, record, and, in some cases, modify mental health, such as providing location-based services to alert users to the nearest mental health clinic, providing self-help mantras and guided meditations, and tracking mood ratings based on self-reporting (Luxton et al. 2011).

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2021), engaging in appropriate coping strategies during the pandemic is important to maintaining one’s mental wellbeing. We developed the Serene app to help our students and the surrounding community cope with the pandemic while gathering information on the mental health of the community. Specifically, the app was developed to accomplish this goal through non-medical advice that engages users with behavioral activities, psychoeducation, motivational quotes, video exercises for relaxation and breathing, local and national professional resources, and connections to available, external, evidence-based mental health apps.

We set out to determine the best practices in developing a professional level organization for app creation. We anticipated the project would take four months, but it took eight months with an additional four weeks for the Google Play Store release and an additional eight weeks for media coverage.


Our group was separated into three pairs, each consisting of a faculty member and a student. Faculty members chose students in their discipline based on previous coursework, previous independent study, and their experience of the students in their courses. The faculty/student pairs are referred to as teams. The three teams were as follows:

  1. UX (user experience) team (an engineering psychology professor and an undergraduate human factors psychology student who successfully completed the assignment in Appendix A),
  2. Content team (a clinical psychology professor and a counseling graduate student), and
  3. App development team (a computer science professor and an undergraduate computer science student).

The corporate liaison provided advice and guided compliance to the institutional mission and the funding agency’s mission.

User experience (UX) team

The UX team organized first to create the design for the minimally viable product (MVP) prototype. Eric Ries (2013) discusses the specifics of MVPs and how they can save development time. The UX student used her expertise in human factors and referred to the research-based best practices on Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen’s NN group website (Nielsen Norman Group 2020). Don Norman is a faculty member at the University of California San Diego and one of the forefathers of UX. Jakob Nielsen is an engineer and a principal at the NN group.

The UX and content students conducted a competitive analysis to discover what similar apps existed and what these apps provided to users as Jill DaSilva (2020) discusses. They created a spreadsheet of similar apps and their features. This was the basis of requirements gathering as Janet Six (2019) suggests. The team reviewed the spreadsheet and developed the requirements document using a version of the MOSCOW method (must, should, could, won’t) as discussed in ProductPlan (2020) and then refined this list. Some desired but untenable features were “connecting to a counselor on campus through a chat feature” and “talking to others using the app.” Both of these features would require infrastructure that was unavailable. Then, the UX student organized the architecture of the app discussed by Jen Cardello (2014) and used LucidChart to create the architecture as shown in Figure 1.

A flow chart showing the information architecture.
Figure 1. The information architecture.

After approval, the UX student generated pencil sketches of the screens and then developed the individual screens using the open-source material design pattern library (http://material.io/). Next, the student used the Invision App (https://www.invisionapp.com/) with a free educational license (https://www.invisionapp.com/education) to work out the navigation between the screens. At each stage of this process, her work was approved by the group. The prototype took two weeks longer than anticipated. The Serene app design is stored online at Invision (https://projects.invisionapp.com/share/8DXSLUJCRAK#/screens).

App development team

The development team participated in the discussions of the overall design, the design of the architecture, and the design of the UX. Following creation of the UX design by the UX team, the app development student created a prototype of Serene that followed the UX design and turned the prototype into a fully functioning app product using his expertise in computer science, following weekly discussions with the entire team. The development process consisted of the development of the back end, a Java server that handled the processing and storage of data, and the front-end, the app itself, built using HTML5 and JavaScript with Cordova (https://cordova.apache.org/), providing multi-platform support.

Content team

The content team helped the UX team to research similar apps. A spreadsheet was created to compare similar apps and their functionality. Following discussion with the whole team, the content student developed comprehensive resource lists to provide users with information regarding:

  • Mental health providers in Erie County, Pennsylvania. The list consisted of local agencies and organizations, their contact information, and the target population.
  • Nationwide mental health resources. The list consisted of national mental health hotlines and organizations for various populations.
  • Other mental health smart-phone applications. In collaboration with the UX team, a list was created with all the mental health applications that the team was able to find. The content team assessed the applications and chose a small number of evidence-based applications to suggest in the Serene app as additional applications.
  • Behavioral activities that users could consider doing. Based on psychological principles of behavioral activation (Kanter et al. 2010) to help increase well-being by remaining physically active, the content student used her expertise in counseling psychology to compile a list of various activities users could do across a variety of settings and circumstances (see Appendix B). Given some of the restrictions experienced due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, these resources provide users with ideas for activities they can engage in regardless of pandemic-related circumstances (e.g., socially distant outdoor activities or things to do at home if faced with a stay-at-home order).
  • Motivational quotes. Upon discussion with the whole team, it was decided that three categories of quotes (i.e., psychology quotes, I am… quotes, and motivational quotes) were needed. The content team sought to include at least 365 quotes in each of the three categories thereby ensuring a steady stream of new content (i.e., one new quote from each category for every day of the year) to help promote regular use of the app and gather information on how users were feeling. The final list consisted of approximately 380 quotes for each category.

The content student also used her expertise in counseling to research and write articles that provided users with evidence-based information regarding mental health and COVID-19, all accessible from within the Serene app. The mental health information discussed emotional reactions and stigmatization in mental health. The COVID-19 article was a comprehensive summary of the characteristics of the coronavirus, along with ways individuals can protect themselves. All sources used were either governmental (e.g., CDC and WHO) or other high-quality online resources (see Appendix C; e.g., information from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation). These articles and resources assist users in finding valid and reliable information about mental health and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Providing users with this type of information, also referred to as psychoeducation, is a very important component of multiple therapeutic models in mental health services. That is to say, we need to provide information related to the individual mental health concerns of mental health consumers in order to raise awareness and offer a sense of reality and control. Since the Serene app was created as a tool to assist its users with mental health struggles in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic, our articles are meant to provide users with information about basic mental health concepts like stigma and emotions, as well as information about the coronavirus. Further, many unreputable online resources spread misinformation and inaccuracies that may confuse or even disturb individuals. Therefore, providing reliable resources and psychoeducation to users of the Serene app may also help to decrease potential distress that individuals may face if they were to search for and receive this same information from other, potentially unreliable or misinformative sources.

Finally, the content student’s expertise in counseling helped her to create mindfulness, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation exercises that users could freely access within the Serene app. For this purpose, appropriate audio recording equipment (Studio Condenser USB Microphone with Adjustable Scissor Arm Stand) was purchased. Moreover, the content student searched online resources to find and adapt scripts and soundtracks for use within the app. The content student recorded the audio for each of the exercises, mixed the audio with background music and visuals, and uploaded each exercise to the team’s YouTube channel, for use within the app. The majority of the content student’s hours were spent in the creation of these exercises because significant time was needed for the student to locate appropriate scripts and soundtracks and to get familiar with the recording equipment and software. By the end, a five-minute recording would take approximately two hours to complete from start to finish.

Student Work and Time

As this was the first time that we had developed an application together, we had many questions about how much time the students should spend and what they should be doing during those hours. Based on our experiences, 50 percent of person-hours were devoted to the app development student, followed by 36 percent to the content student, and 14 percent to the UX student. To help future academic development teams determine a budget, we have included the actual student time/activities as concrete guidance.

UX team

Students were screened in an “Introduction to Human Factors” class on a prototype development assignment (see Appendix A). One of the challenges we had was budgeting for student hours. While these times may not work for every project, here is the time breakdown for the UX student.

UX student time Activity
8 hours Competitive app research
2 hours Helping with content
2.5 hours Information architecture
16.25 hours Meetings—requirements development, review sessions, organizing the project
30 hours Prototyping
8 hours User testing and reporting
2 hours Miscellaneous
Table 1. The time that it took the UX student excluding final user testing.

App development team

Students were screened in a computer science class where coding assignments were a major component. Students’ assignments were reviewed based on their performance, which included the correctness, efficiency, and organization of their written programming code. One student was invited to join the team based on his performance and his availability in the schedule of the development.

App development student time Activity
12 hours Back-end development, including the storage of data on a server and server setup*
205 hours Front-end app development, including the app interface and the connection to the back end
6 hours Miscellaneous
18 hours Meetings
Table 2. The time that it took the app development student excluding submission of the final version to Google Play. *Server setup requires the support of the IT department at the institution, which may take days or weeks depending on the institution. This is not counted in the development table.

Content team

Given the mental health nature of the content to be created for this application, it was important to find a student with expertise in both the research and practice of clinical psychology. Therefore, the student for the content team was hand selected from a clinical psychology graduate program on campus. Prior to working on this project, the student worked as a research assistant for the content team lead. Through this work the student demonstrated several key qualifications for this position, including: a passion for mental health advocacy, a mastery of the material, and the ability to work efficiently and effectively both as part of the team and on an individual level.

Content student time Activity
16 hours Creating a database of county-wide mental health resources (e.g., providers) as well as select nationwide resources (e.g., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
3.5 hours Researching other mental health smartphone applications to list within this app to provide users with additional wellness resources
9 hours Creating a list of behavioral activities users could access to help find things to do across a range of current circumstances (e.g., things to do at home, if faced with a stay-at-home order due to the pandemic; socially distant outdoor activities)
34 hours Collating several lists of positive and inspirational quotes
91.5 hours Producing video content for the app (e.g., mindfulness exercise videos)
16 hours Attending team meetings
3 hours Miscellaneous
Table 3. The time that it took the content student.

Project Development and Implementation

Initial development began in late April 2020 with team organization for the summer and an application for grant funding. Project planning was done using a mix of free templates. For planning purposes, the UX work and content work happened in the first three months. App programming began concurrently in the second month once the initial prototype screens had been determined. User testing began in the third month along with iterations to solve the issues that were discovered. Figure 2 outlines the order in which the development occurred as well as the stages of ideation, solidification, and implementation within each phase. Review was ongoing in each phase. Development finished in the sixth month with submission to Google Play Store in the seventh month. The app was approved and deployed in the eighth month.

A diagram showing the development cycle with four components: specification, design, development, and deployment. Each component is further divided into ideate, solidify, and implement. The four components form one iteration of the cycle.
Figure 2. The development cycle.

Resulting Impacts

In order to keep the team focused and establish a collaboration, a project plan was our first action. Within the project plan was the rationale, the project scope, team composition, team responsibilities, team deliverables, milestone activities, communication management plan, the contact information for each team member, the budget, how the meetings would be conducted, and a quality baseline commitment. All members reviewed and revised the project plan until it was agreeable. The document was critical to the interdisciplinary focus and prevented role drift where one person tries to take over all the roles in the development process.

The Serene app included three opportunities for learning. The first opportunity was to learn more about how a multidisciplinary team could be structured to deliver specific applied skills in an academic setting. The second was the learning environment of developing the app itself. The third occurs in deploying the app to the larger community and learning more about the community’s mental health.

The first learning opportunity gave us a greater appreciation of how each discipline perceived the work and structured priorities. For example, the content group had a great interest in gathering mental health data. At first, the UX and app development teams failed to realize how important biological sex is to mental health data collection and analysis. The content team explained a long-standing issue in the mental health field pertaining to a need to research and better understand biological sex differences in relation to psychopathology as Cynthia Hartung and Thomas Widiger (1998) and Cynthia Hartung and Elizabeth Lefler (2019) discuss. As a result, it is important to ensure that data such as biological sex is collected and analyzed in mental health research to help elucidate whether any potential findings vary by sex. Even through this simple occurrence, the students learned the value of the various perspectives provided by an interdisciplinary team. The team included five options to report sex: prefer not to say, male, female, intersex, and other.

The second opportunity happened both during and after development as we learned to coordinate our expertise. The members of UX, app development, and content teams used their expertise to move the project forward. Faculty mentors coached students on teamwork skills and developed the students’ expertise in separate meetings. The weekly team meetings were opportunities for joint design decisions, review of the work, and progress maintenance by following the four we’s: (a) this is what we were thinking in our role, (b) this is what we did to move the project forward, (c) this is what we think should be done next, (d) what do we think? The forming, storming, norming, and performing stages are well documented (Tuckman 1965), however, in this project a deeper sense of inquiry was necessary to convey respect for each role’s effort. This respect freed individuals from preliminary criticism that would hamper their motivation yet allowed the team to critique the project at critical milestones. For example, the UX team struggled to devise the weekly, monthly, and yearly graphs. During weekly reviews, the team settled on an earlier solution. The UX team enjoyed the freedom to exercise their expertise and intellectually explore the options before the final design decision was made by the team.

The third learning opportunity is ongoing and comes from anonymous user data being collected to identify and address potential mental health inadequacies prevalent in the regional community. Typically, mental health needs outpace the resources available. By creating this app, we not only provided valuable resources to the community during a time of immense need, but we also gained valuable insight into the ongoing needs of our community. For instance, these data allow us to analyze the anonymous, self-reported, mental health data, across time throughout and after the pandemic. It also allows us to examine and better understand what types of local resource content are most applicable to our community members. Ultimately, these data will allow the team to better understand the specific needs of our area, as reported by the community, and can serve to tailor engagement towards addressing specific community needs.

While we often put students in teams in class, they rarely participate in teams across disciplines. This project was a beneficial example of how to construct an interdisciplinary team. Each student responded positively in their comments (see Appendix D): “The biggest challenge was taking what suggestions the development team had and giving them life”; “Nonetheless, working with a large group of experienced professors and students allowed for a painless development process”; and “The main sense that remains with me after the completion of Serene is that of working and communicating with people from various fields who all used their own language, interests, and expertise for the same project.”


We encountered several challenges through our development process. They range from technical—data warehousing, quality assurance, design, to legal—terms of service, to managerial—content. The following sections describe each of them.

Data warehousing

One of the first challenges was where to host the programming code as the project developed. Two back-end server hosting solutions were considered. The first was a cloud-based solution, Amazon Web Services (AWS). However, this solution was abandoned due to its ongoing costs associated with storage (AWS Simple Storage Service), computing (AWS Elastic Compute Cloud), and communication (AWS Data Transfer). We chose the second solution, hosting with an internal institutional server using Windows Server. This solution required:

  • Help from IT support from the university in setting up server
  • University computing and storage resources
  • Compliance with university, including accessibility
  • Access to the Google Play Store from a university-owned account


A considerable amount of time was spent in finding mindfulness scripts, soundtracks, and images with no copyrights. Also, the composition of the audio files was quite challenging, and particularly the pairing of the soundtrack with the narrative. The first few recordings took many hours to complete. Finally, the list with the quotes was unexpectedly time consuming, as the content team had to proof-read the quotes and ascertain the authors for all the quotes that appeared “unknown” during the search.

Many of the resources were kept in a spreadsheet file. The team decided to use html tags so the app could easily access the spreadsheet resources and use those resources, as is, within the app. The content team easily learned the tags and adapted.

Institutional Review Board

We found that we needed two reviews for human subjects research. One was for user testing during development. The other was for using the data that the app gathered. As this second review of data had information that was not identifiable to a person, it was determined that this was not human subjects’ data.

Attorney services

There were many questions about how to best navigate terms of service and data use. We worked closely with the legal department at our institution through the corporate liaison officer to implement a terms of service appropriate to the general nature of the app and for the information on the data and how it would be used. Since the Serene app has a mental health focus, it was essential to ensure that it was not used as a substitute for medical care and that the development team and the university could not be held liable for any such misuse. Therefore, the corporate liaison consulted with the university’s offices of risk management and general counsel. These offices helped to craft simple, understandable terms of service and data usage language. As the app was produced by the students, we chose to provide that information on the accompanying website rather in the app itself.

Design of charts

Other challenges included problems related to a specific content area. In UX/UI- there was quite a bit of work on how the charts would look. Initially, we considered a complex line and bar chart such as in Figure 3.

Figure 3. A line plot charts 'anxious', 'boredom' and 'anger.' While 'anger' hovers at the lowest level, rising toward the end, 'anxious' comes to overtake 'boredom' at the end, after an uneven dip below.
Figure 3. Initial prototype for tracking emotions.

However, this chart was too complex for the small real estate on a mobile phone screen and did not capture the weekly, monthly, and yearly changes. Then, we tried three different charts as shown in Figures 4 to 6.

Figure 4. A line plot of weekly progress showing how three types of emotions change on a weekly basis. One emotion starts with a high value and then drops to a low value towards the end.
Figure 4. Prototype of weekly progress.
Figure 5. A bar graph of monthly progress showing how three types of emotions change on a monthly basis. Each emotion is represented by a differently-colored bar. The emotion represented by the orange color starts with a high value and then drops to a low value towards the end.
Figure 5. Prototype of monthly progress.
Figure 6. A filled area graph of yearly progress showing how three types of emotions change on a yearly basis. Each emotion is represented by a differently-colored area. The values of the three emotions change from year to year.
Figure 6. Prototype of yearly progress.

User testing

In order to discover how well the design was understood, we conducted user testing with five undergraduate students from the psychology course testing pool which was approved by the IRB. The UX student used standard user testing methodologies as recommended on NN group’s user testing videos (Nielsen Norman Group 2020). In the user testing, participants were asked to do three tasks: Find a mindfulness video, find an activity to do on the phone/computer, and find a local resource for depression. Then, the researcher took note of any problems the participant had and how long it took each participant to do each task along with satisfaction ratings as described by Erik Frøkjær, Morten Hertzum, and Kasper Hornbæk (2000). Participants in user testing found that some of the labels were unclear and there was confusion about where to find specific tasks within the app. There were also questions about the use of a password and if users would be able to use the app on their Android phone and on the web. Users said that they would like a password, but this would invalidate some of the anonymity of the data and could cause some late-stage development changes. Thus, we decided to leave the password issue to the future releases and comments were gathered.

Quality assurance team

Once the code is working, there needs to be a dedicated team that tests the app, looks for the weaknesses and finds out if there are bugs that might break the app. We did not have such a team and instead functioned as our own quality-assurance team along with friends who volunteered their time. This method took longer and a professional-level assurance team should be included in the budget.

Conclusions and Future Directions

Despite the challenges encountered during the development of the app, the combination of talents into one interdisciplinary team allowed the creation of a completed product that far exceeded what one discipline could accomplish alone. One purpose of the project was to give the students the experience of working in a structured and distributed environment with a team that was segregated by roles but followed an agile software development approach, where development happened in an iterative way. Professors spent additional hours mentoring the students on teamwork and communication as well as learning about the other roles. Working together while maintaining a constant line of communication was key to its success. Having regular stages of reviews during the development cycle helped guide the process in the right direction. Using the right collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams, Google Docs, and GitHub, made team work much easier. The Serene app is available through Google Play and can be accessed on the Serene website.

Knowing that the project would result in an app launched to a large community of potential users provided ample motivation to meet the learning and performance needs for successful completion of the project. Learning requirements were high and extended well beyond knowledge gained in coursework. Also, it did not go unnoticed by the students that the audience for this project was external to the university, and it motivated them to take extra care and expend extra effort in their work. Working within an interdisciplinary team that extends beyond students to include university faculty and staff helped the students to broaden their perspective of app development work to include the work of the other teams, focus their thinking on alignment of the project with the mission of the university, understand potential legal responsibilities, and value meeting the expectations of external stakeholders. For example, the funding agency has a strong local focus, so the students had to be sure to target a sufficient portion of the app’s functionality toward a regional audience.

Our university is highly focused on being an Open Lab (Birx, Ford and Payne 2013), an interdisciplinary living laboratory where learning and discovery are applied to solve problems defined in partnership with external stakeholders. The Open Lab concept evolved from the idea of research clusters working on pressing local problems. The Open Lab is a win for students, faculty, and the external organizations: students gain career-building, real-world experience; faculty enjoy the ability to keep their skills relevant and transfer their networks to students; and external partners benefit from the energy and ingenuity of student talent. More information can be found at the Open Lab website through the university homepage (https://behrend.psu.edu). This project aligns with that focus, as it creates an outward-facing product that receives and engages with feedback from the external community, adding motivation and accountability to the students’ work. It is notable that all students acknowledged the value that this experience provided to them and their career development. Students involved in this team left individual comments regarding their experience (see Appendix D).

We plan on continuing an extension of this project. For future work, psychology content can be updated and expanded with additional mental health or COVID-19 focused information, resources, or the creation and addition of new wellness exercises that users can freely access from within the Serene app. We have deployed the app and are monitoring user feedback. Additional user testing will be conducted based on user feedback. We also plan to deploy the app to iOS. When recruiting undergraduate students, it is a good idea to have overlapping years. There should be some second-year students, some third-year students, and some senior students. This approach ensures smooth transitions for projects having a multi-year life expectancy.


Birx, Donald L., Ralph M. Ford, and Carrie A. Payne. 2013. “The University as an Open Laboratory.” Journal of Research Administration 44, no. 2: 11–37.

Blackwell, Alan F., Lee Wilson, Alice Street, Charles Boulton, and John Knell. 2009. “Radical Innovation: Crossing Knowledge Boundaries with Interdisciplinary Teams.” Department of Computer Science and Technology Technical Reports UCAM-CL-TR-760, November 2009. https://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/techreports/UCAM-CL-TR-760.html.

Brodack, Franziska, and Anna Sinell. 2017. “Promoting Entrepreneurial Commitment: The Benefits of Interdisciplinarity.” Technology Innovation Management Review 7, no. 12: 6–13. http://doi.org/10.22215/timreview/1123.

Cardello, Jen. 2014. “The Difference between Information Architecture and Navigation.” NN group, November 26, 2020. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ia-vs-navigation/.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2019. “Coping with Stress.” CDC, January 22, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html.

DaSilva, Jill. 2020. “A Guide to Competitive Analysis for UX Design.” Adobe, June 12, 2020. https://xd.adobe.com/ideas/process/user-research/guide-to-competitive-analysis-ux-design/.

Fernández, Rodrigo S., Lucia Crivelli, Nahuel Magrath Guimet, Ricardo F. Allegri, and Maria E. Pedreira. 2020. “Psychological Distress Associated with COVID-19 Quarantine: Latent Profile Analysis, Outcome Prediction and Mediation Analysis.” Journal of Affective Disorders 277: 75–84. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.07.133.

Frøkjær, Erik, Morten Hertzum, and Kasper Hornbæk. 2000. “Measuring Usability: Are Effectiveness, Efficiency, and Satisfaction Really Correlated?” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2, no.1: 345–352.

Hartung, Cynthia M., and Elizabeth K. Lefler. 2019. “Sex and Gender in Psychopathology: DSM-5 and Beyond.” Psychological Bulletin 145, no. 4: 390–409. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000183.

Hartung, Cynthia M., and Thomas A. Widiger. 1998. “Gender Differences in the Diagnosis of Mental Disorders: Conclusions and Controversies of the DSM–IV.” Psychological Bulletin 123, no. 3: 260–278. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.123.3.260.

Ho, Cyrus Sh, Cornelia Yi Chee, and Roger Cm Ho. 2020. “Mental Health Strategies to Combat the Psychological Impact of COVID-19 Beyond Paranoia and Panic.” Annals Academy of Medicine, Singapore 49, no. 1: 1–3.

Kanter, Jonathan W., Rachel C. Manos, William M. Bowe, David E. Baruch, Andrew M. Busch, and Laura C. Rusch. 2010. “What is Behavioral Activation?: A Review of the Empirical Literature.” Clinical Psychology Review 30, no. 6: 608–620. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.04.001.

Kar, Sujita Kumar, SM Yasir Arafat, Russell Kabir, Pawan Sharma, and Shailendra K. Saxena. 2020. “Coping with Mental Health Challenges During COVID-19.” In Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Medical Virology: From Pathogenesis to Disease Control, edited by Shailendra K. Saxena. Singapore: Springer.

Luxton, David D., Russell A. McCann, Nigel E. Bush, Matthew C. Mishkind, and Greg M. Reger. 2011. “mHealth for Mental Health: Integrating Smartphone Technology in Behavioral Healthcare.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice 42, no. 6: 505–512.

Moirano, Regina, Marisa Analía Sánchez, and Libor Štěpánek. 2020. “Creative Interdisciplinary Collaboration: A Systematic Literature Review.” Thinking Skills and Creativity 35, no. 100626: 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tsc.2019.100626.

Naeem, Farooq, Muhammad Irfan, and Afzal Javed. 2020. “Coping with COVID-19: Urgent Need for Building Resilience Through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.” Khyber Medical University Journal 12, no. 1: 1–3. https://doi.org/10.35845/kmuj.2020.20194.

Nielsen Norman Group. 2020. “User testing.” NN group, June 3, 2020. https://www.nngroup.com/videos/user-testing-jakob-nielsen/.

Pierce, Matthias, Holly Hope, Tamsin Ford, Stephani Hatch, Matthew Hotopf, Ann John, Evangelos Kontopantelis et al. 2020. “Mental Health Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic: a Longitudinal Probability Sample Survey of the UK Population.” The Lancet Psychiatry 7, no. 10: 883–892. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30308-4.

ProductPlan. 2020. “MoSCoW Prioritization.” ProductPlan, November 25, 2020. https://www.productplan.com/glossary/moscow-prioritization/.

Ries, Eric. 2013. “Building the Minimum Viable Product.” Stanford Technology Ventures Program, August 28, 2013. https://youtu.be/1FoCbbbcYT8.

Saltzman, Leia Y., Tonya Cross Hansel, and Patrick S. Bordnick. 2020. “Loneliness, Isolation, and Social Support Factors in Post–COVID-19 Mental Health.” Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy 12, no. S1: S55–S57. https://dx.doi.org/10.1037/tra0000703.

Six, Janet M. 2019. “Eliciting Business Requirements.” UX Matters, April 23, 2019. https://www.uxmatters.com/mt/archives/2019/04/eliciting-business-requirements.php.

Tuckman, Bruce W. 1965. “Developmental sequence in small groups.” Psychological Bulletin 63, no. 6: 384–399.

Appendix A: UX Screening Assignment

For this project, I want you to imagine that you have been hired to create a prototype for a mythical application. The goal of the application is to reach out to people who are feeling anxious and provide them with mental health resources and exercises to help. Boredom is part of anxiety, so it also addresses boredom. The red route in this app is that people should be able to report their level of anxiety and then get a breathing exercise and then get the phone numbers of mental health professionals. Please use one of these programs: Adobe XD (inside Adobe Creative Suite), or Figma, or Invision to create a prototype for this app. Your prototype must be designed for an Android phone and have at least one screen for each box in the information architecture outline which is here in Figure 7.

Figure 7. A flow chart showing the architecture used by the screening assignment – See outline.
Figure 7. The architecture that the assignment used.

Each screen must show the choices that would bring you to the next screen (yes/no). The screens must use the Material design pattern library which is here: https://material.io/. Once you are finished with all the screens and they are linked so that they work as an app would, please turn in the URL. I don’t want the screens or the file, just the URL for the prototype.

Appendix B: Activities Provided to Users Within the Serene App

Activity Category Type Activity
Indoors Cook/Bake a new recipe
Indoors Take a nap (or two)
Indoors Do a jigsaw puzzle
Indoors Organize your room
Indoors Take a (long) bath/shower
Indoors Clean your room/house
Indoors Try out DIY crafts
Indoors Organize your cabinets
Indoors Throw away expired items
Indoors Redecorate your room/house
Indoors Repaint your room/house
Indoors Reorganize your closet (check out Marie Kondo)
Indoors Fix broken items
Indoors Plan your outfits (even your “Zoom” ones)
Indoors Clean your electronic devices
Indoors Do your laundry
Indoors Clean your fridge
Indoors Create an emergency kit
Indoors Cook/Bake for your friends or co-workers
Indoors Rearrange your furniture
Indoors Make a pillow fort
Indoors Make a cardboard house
Indoors Take care of your plants
Indoors Sing around the house
Indoors Cook a Michelin worthy meal
Indoors Meal prep for the week/month (it will change your life)
Indoors Change your bedsheets
Indoors Organize your workspace
Indoors Shave
Indoors Cook an international cuisine
Indoors Make home-made “fast food” (pizza, tacos, etc.)
Indoors Grow an indoor kitchen garden
Indoors Make your own peanut butter and jam
Outdoors Start a vegetable garden
Outdoors Clean out your car (Beware!)
Outdoors Plant flowers
Outdoors Find a place to volunteer
Outdoors Go to church
Outdoors Sell stuff you don’t need
Outdoors Go on a solo date
Outdoors Go for a walk/run
Outdoors Go for a bike ride
Outdoors Plan and go on a scavenger hunt
Outdoors Make a cardboard house
Outdoors Birdwatch
Outdoors Go for a drive
Outdoors Have a bonfire (and roast marshmallows, of course)
Outdoors Sunbathe (don’t forget your sunscreen)
Outdoors Take care of your plants
Outdoors Fly a kite
Outdoors Go camping (and roast marshmallows, again)
Outdoors Walk on the beach/riverfront
Outdoors Go roller-skating
Outdoors Go hiking
Outdoors Go out for dinner/lunch to a new restaurant
Outdoors Go fishing
Outdoors Gaze at the stars (appease the romantic in you)
Outdoors Go on a picnic
Outdoors Go to a coffee shop (no, not the drive-thru)
Outdoors Have a barbecue
Outdoors Spend time in nature
Outdoors Go to home opens
Outdoors Walk around the city
Outdoors Mow your lawn
Outdoors Build a bird house/feeder
Outdoors Go to a scenic spot and enjoy the view
Outdoors Learn tricks with a jumping rope
Outdoors Turn your yard into an outdoor cinema
Outdoors Take your dog to the park
Outdoors Check out geocaching (yes, it is still a thing)
Outdoors Let out some energy by screaming or running around like crazy (not recommended if you live near people)
Outdoors Build a hammock
Outdoors Watch the sunset/sunrise
Outdoors Build a sandcastle
Entertainment Watch YouTube videos
Entertainment Binge-watch a new TV show
Entertainment Play a video game
Entertainment Read a book/magazine
Entertainment Blast some music
Entertainment Discover new music
Entertainment Visit museums virtually
Entertainment Watch a documentary
Entertainment Read your favorite blogs/find new ones
Entertainment Listen to your favorite podcast/find new ones
Entertainment Play online games with your friends/family
Entertainment Make a new playlist
Entertainment Make a playlist for every mood
Entertainment Download fun apps
Entertainment Listen to an audiobook
Entertainment Watch a Disney movie
Entertainment Learn a magic/card trick
Entertainment Dig out old board games
Entertainment Listen to the radio
Entertainment Re-watch your all-time favorite movies
Entertainment Have a movie marathon
Entertainment Read a comic book (DC or Marvel?)
Socializing Text/call someone you haven’t talked for a long time
Socializing Play online games with your friends/family
Socializing Take on a new challenge with your friends/family
Socializing Ask your parents and grandparents about their childhood
Socializing Find a place to volunteer
Socializing Go to church
Socializing Throw a themed Zoom party
Socializing Call your grandparents
Socializing Plan your next vacation/get-away (visualize that the Earth and people are fine again)
Socializing Contact a distant relative
Socializing Talk with your family
Socializing Plan/Go on a road trip
Socializing Go old school and get a pen pal
Socializing Have a class reunion (Zoom makes it easier)
Socializing Don’t take your loved ones for granted and remind them that you love them
Socializing Plan a Zoom trivia night
Socializing Teach a skill to someone
Socializing Plan a surprise for someone
Socializing Get to know your neighbors
Socializing Spread some positive energy and give someone a genuine compliment
Pen & Paper Draw/Paint/Doodle
Pen & Paper Do a painting tutorial
Pen & Paper Create a bucket list
Pen & Paper Write thank-you cards
Pen & Paper Start a journal
Pen & Paper Create a healthy meal plan (and follow it)
Pen & Paper Schedule your week/month/year
Pen & Paper Solve brainteasers/crosswords
Pen & Paper Make a list of your favorite quotes (Serene can help you out with this)
Pen & Paper Make a travel bucket list
Pen & Paper Write a letter to your future self
Pen & Paper Start a gratitude journal
Pen & Paper Color an adult coloring book
Pen & Paper Make a list with all the things that make you happy
Pen & Paper Create a list with all the things you don’t know and want to Google
Pen & Paper Write a poem/essay/story/song
Pen & Paper Design your dream house (maybe log in your Sims account?)
Pen & Paper Plan your next vacation/get-away (visualize that the Earth and people are fine again)
Pen & Paper Make a pros-cons list to help you make a decision
Pen & Paper Plan/Go on a road trip (Google themed road trips; you won’t regret it)
Pen & Paper Learn calligraphy
Pen & Paper Follow a writing prompt
Pen & Paper Document all the self-isolation days by photography or writing for the future generations to see
Personal Growth Read a book/magazine
Personal Growth Visit museums virtually
Personal Growth Watch a documentary
Personal Growth Organize your finance
Personal Growth Start a journal
Personal Growth Create a healthy meal plan (and follow it)
Personal Growth Make a list of your goals with 3 logical and feasible steps to achieve them
Personal Growth Learn a new language (well, get started at least)
Personal Growth Update your resume
Personal Growth Watch TED-Talks
Personal Growth Start a gratitude journal
Personal Growth Learn how to play an instrument
Personal Growth Listen to an audiobook
Personal Growth Apply for a new job
Personal Growth Plan your future education
Personal Growth Look for online/free certificates
Personal Growth Make a list with all the things that make you happy
Personal Growth Expand your vocabulary (appease your intellectual self)
Personal Growth Do the one thing you have been putting off (you know what we are talking about)
Personal Growth Make a plan to pay out your debt
Personal Growth Learn how to build up a good credit
Personal Growth Find a place to volunteer
Personal Growth Practice your religion
Personal Growth Learn about spirituality
Personal Growth Research ways to make your living situation more sustainable and “green”
Personal Growth Research about other cultures
Personal Growth Update your LinkedIn
Personal Growth Create a vision board
Personal Growth Start a money saving challenge
Personal Growth Take a fun online course
Personal Growth Google things that interest you
Personal Growth Finish unfinished projects
Personal Growth Research fitness/wellness videos/blogs
Personal Growth Learn more about finance and budgeting
Personal Growth Make a pros-cons list to help you make a decision
Personal Growth Create a savings plan
Personal Growth Learn a new skill
Personal Growth Learn a graphic design program
Personal Growth Learn first aid
Personal Growth Explore career options
Personal Growth Buy a newspaper to read with your morning coffee instead of checking your phone
Personal Growth Teach a skill to someone
Personal Growth Spread some positive energy and give someone a genuine compliment
Personal Growth Dance (like no one is watching)
Personal Growth Play with your pet or teach it a new trick
Personal Growth Exercise
Personal Growth Practice a new physical activity
Personal Growth Do yoga
Personal Growth Stretch (daily if possible)
Personal Growth Go for a walk/run
Personal Growth Go for a bike ride
Personal Growth Do aerobics (remember Zumba?)
Personal Growth Try out martial arts/self-defense
Personal Growth Go swimming
Personal Growth Go roller-skating
Personal Growth Go hiking
Personal Growth Play your favorite sports
Personal Growth Walk around the city
Personal Growth Learn tricks with a jumping rope
Computer/Phone Play a video game
Computer/Phone Visit museums virtually
Computer/Phone Back-up your computer
Computer/Phone Play online games with your friends/family
Computer/Phone Make a new playlist
Computer/Phone Make a playlist for every mood
Computer/Phone Watch TED-Talks
Computer/Phone Declutter your emails
Computer/Phone Download fun apps
Computer/Phone Create a TikTok video
Computer/Phone Delete old contacts from your phone
Computer/Phone “Get lost” with Google Sky and Google Maps
Computer/Phone Search for birthday gifts for your loved ones
Computer/Phone Unsubscribe your email from newsletters
Computer/Phone Sell stuff you don’t need
Computer/Phone Organize your documents
Computer/Phone Google things that interest you
Computer/Phone Research fitness/wellness videos/blogs
Computer/Phone Leave a positive review on Amazon (because we all need some positive in our lives)
Computer/Phone Make a wish-list on Amazon
Computer/Phone Make a to-watch list on IMDB
Computer/Phone Make a to-read list on Goodreads
Computer/Phone Update your social media bio(s)
Computer/Phone Learn a graphic design program
Computer/Phone Start a blog
Other Organize your pictures
Other Start a new challenge
Other Practice relaxation techniques
Other Meditate
Other Look into your family tree
Other Put together a family history book
Other Go through old pictures
Other Stay hydrated and drink more water
Other Practice breathing techniques
Other Do a picture challenge-take pictures with certain themes
Other Care for your pet
Other Do a pet photoshoot
Other Sew something
Other Patch up an old blanket
Other Make a short movie
Other Try out a new makeup look
Other Try out a new hairstyle
Other Keep track of your alcohol/caffeine intake
Other Start a collection (coins, shells, stamps, etc.)
Other Organize your picturesTry embroidery/cross stitching/crocheting/knitting
Other Go to a beauty salon (applies to all genders)
Other Babysit for a friend/neighbor (kids are fun)
Other Daydream like everything is possible
Other Spend a day with children
Other Play dress-up
Other Light up candles and relax
Other Do some research for the best deal on the things you want to buy
Other Do a favor for someone
Other Donate blood
Other Turn off your electronic devices for an hour
Other Blow bubbles
Other Try out origami
Other Do something nostalgic (listen to old songs, watch old pictures, etc.)

Appendix C: Sources Used for the Mental Health and COVID-19 Content Articles

BBC. “Coronavirus global update” bb.co.uk

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “COVID-19” gatesfoundation.org

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Coronavirus (COVID-19)” cdc.gov

COVID-19 facts. “COVID-19 facts” covid-19facts.com

Department of Homeland Security. “Master question list for COVID-19 (caused by SARS-CoV-2)” dhs.gov

Inside Higher Ed. “Live updates: Latest news on coronavirus and higher education” insidehighered.com

Law librarians of Congress. “Coronavirus resource guide” loc.gov

National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “LitCOVID” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov

National Institute of Health (NIH, official website). “Coronavirus (COVID-19)” nih.gov

National Institute of Health (NIH). “Open-Access Data and Computational Resources” nih.gov

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). “COVID-19” osha.gov

Pennsylvania Department of health. “Coronavirus (COVID-19)” health.pa.gov

Rapid reviews. “Rapid reviews: COVID-19” rapidreviewscovid19.mitpress.mit.edu

Surgo Foundation. “Bringing greater precision to the COVID-19 response” precisionforcovid.org

The U.S. Census Bureau. “COVID-19 Demographic and economic resources” covid19.census.gov

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID19)” fda.gov

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “Coronavirus (COVID-19)” coronavirus.gov

Very Well Mind. “Emotions and types of emotional responses” verywellmind.com https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-emotions-2795178#citation-1

World Health Organization (WHO). “Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic” who.int

Appendix D: Student Feedback

UX student

When we created the app, the challenge was how to make the app feel calm and soothing while the potential users were in the app. Research on what apps were already available and what features they offered helped me to shape what I wanted the app to look like—leading to the blues and nature theme throughout the app. The biggest challenge was taking what suggestions the development team had and giving them life. There were several changes along the way as we got into the development of content. I think that is one of the interesting points of being a UX researcher, is the continued changes that must happen along the way as we progress with the application. The journey from starting the app to finishing my part with the development of the app has been a really great experience and it has given me skills that I can build upon and take into my career with me. An exciting part of this app development for me is that this will not only be available to university students but the whole community as well, which is a point that helped me to create a mental health app that is visually soothing and helpful for those users.

App development student

While developing the application, I learned many new skills and faced just as many challenges. Throughout college, I have never worked on a project of this scale. This forced me to apply my, somewhat entry level, skills as a web/application developer and build upon them immensely. This included countless hours of experimentation and research in concepts that were new to me. If I had to choose two skills that I am grateful for learning through the development process, it would be working with Amazon Web Services and Windows Server. It is one thing to develop an application on your computer at home, but it is a completely new experience when the application is running on a server for everyone to enjoy. Amazon Web Services makes the process of hosting an application simple but working with a Windows Server proved to be a much greater challenge. This required working within the limitations of the server’s security and, on many occasions, discussing with the IT department to make changes to the server that I did not have clearance to access. Nonetheless, working with a large group of experienced professors and students allowed for a painless development process. Overall, I have gained valuable experience and knowledge that will be beneficial to my future and I enjoyed it along the way.

Content student

The first unexpected challenge was the creation of the “Quote” list. I had to track down the authors of the quotes that appeared as “by unknown” during the search and also check the background of each author to assure that a certain identity was real and the person had a capacity that allowed them to say the specific quote.

The next and biggest challenge was the creation of mindfulness exercises. First, I had to familiarize myself with the digital audio editing software (Audacity). Second, during the recording, I had to assure that the words were being pronounced correctly. As an international student with English being my second language, I had to re-record the same sentence multiple times or even record word by word until I had a final output where my accent was as indistinct as possible. Finally, pairing a recording with a soundtrack had its own difficulties, as the soundtracks were typically shorter than the recordings and I had to assure that the transition from one track to another was smooth and did not interfere with the recording.

The final challenge was the composition of the two brief articles about mental health. This task required a significant amount of merely thinking, trying to narrow down to specifics all the knowledge I had as a clinical psychology student. I had a large amount of information available, but my task was to provide a very specific and, at the same time, comprehensive summary of it all. I also tried to avoid writing based on my own biases and opinions. Finally, I had to use everyday language to explain scientific terms and concepts that would make sense to people unfamiliar with the field.

What I had not realized until I started working on the tasks was that when I was providing the users with every piece of information I had to be completely valid, reliable, and accurate at all levels. I had to be as meticulous as I could. The main sense that remains with me after the completion of Serene is that of working and communicating with people from various fields who all used their own language, interests, and expertise for the same project. In a very short period of time, I was able to gain an experience valuable for my academic and professional future.


This project was funded by the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority. We thank the two reviewers for their insightful comments, and also thank Kris McLain.

About the Authors

Antigoni Kotsiou was the primary content developer on the project. She graduated from Penn State Behrend with an MA in Applied Clinical Psychology. She works as a therapist providing treatment to children, adolescents, and young adults with trauma history and/or other mental health and behavioral concerns. Her research interests include therapeutic processes, techniques, and models, and psychopathology. She is interested in qualitative research and the subjective experiences of those involved in psychotherapy and mental health services. Her responsibility in the Serene project was to create the content based on various psychotherapy theories and models, such as cognitive therapy and mindfulness.

Erica Juriasingani was the primary UX/UI developer on the project. She is a human factors psychology student at Penn State Behrend and is currently completing her last semester. She is working as a UX Researcher with Innovation Commons at Behrend and plans to continue pursuing UX work after her graduation.

Marc Maromonte was the primary software developer on the project. He is an engineering student at Penn State University and is currently completing his Bachelor of Science in computer science. He is currently working as an Application Developer with Innovation Commons at Penn State Behrend. He plans to continue pursuing software development after his graduation.

Jacob Marsh is the Industry Relations Coordinator at Penn State Behrend. Jacob has a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Grove City College, a history in virology research at Penn State Hershey, and a master’s degree in project management from Penn State World Campus. He was instrumental in founding, and currently oversees, the Innovation Commons at Penn State Behrend, a product design and rapid prototyping center staffed by undergraduate students, as part of the Invent Penn State initiative. Jacob also helps develop, fund, and manage various other programs involving entrepreneurship, economic development, and industrial partnerships with Penn State Behrend.

Christopher R. Shelton is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology and the director of the Virtual/Augmented Reality Lab at Penn State Behrend. He has significant clinical experience providing diagnosis, assessment, and treatment for mental health concerns across a wide spectrum of the population. His current research focuses on: (a) examination of ADHD and Sluggish Cognitive Tempo; (b) development of digital mental health assessments and interventions to increase treatment availability; and (c) the use of immersive technologies, such as augmented and virtual reality, across a range of domains. Dr. Shelton earned his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Wyoming.

Richard Zhao is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary. He led the app development team on the Serene project. His current research group focuses on serious games for training and education where he utilizes artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and eye-tracking technologies for this purpose. He received his M.S. and Ph.D. in Computing Science from the University of Alberta. Dr. Zhao was a faculty member at Penn State Behrend.

Lisa Jo Elliott is an Assistant Teaching Professor at Penn State Behrend where she directs the Laboratory for Usability and Interactive Systems – LUIS lab. This lab and Innovation Commons lead a multi-million-dollar grant for a UX-first product design lab. This initiative is one of the first UX-centric product design labs in the United States. It trains UX, UI, interaction design, and experience design students to be future product designers and developers in the engineering, DIGIT, and psychology programs at Penn State Behrend. Dr. Elliott has a Ph.D. from New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, NM, USA.

A sepia-toned stereoscopic image from the turn of the twentieth century depicts a woman in a drawing room, herself looking into a stereoscope.

Interdisciplinarity and Teamwork in Virtual Reality Design


Virtual Reality Design has been co-taught annually at Vanderbilt University since 2017 by professors Bobby Bodenheimer (Computer Science) and Ole Molvig (History, Communications of Science and Technology). This paper discusses the pedagogical and logistical strategies employed during the creation, execution, and subsequent reorganization of this course through multiple offerings. This paper also demonstrates the methods and challenges of designing a team-based project course that is fundamentally structured around interdisciplinarity and group work.


What is virtual reality? What can it do? What can’t it do? What is it good/bad for? These are some of the many questions we ask on the first day of our course, Virtual Reality Design (Virtual Reality for Interdisciplinary Applications from 2017–2018). Since 2017, professors Ole Molvig of the History Department and Bobby Bodenheimer of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering have been co-teaching this course annually to roughly 50 students at a time. With each offering of the course, we have significantly revamped our underlying pedagogical goals and strategies based upon student feedback, the learning literature, and our own experiences. What began as a course about virtual reality has become a course about interdisciplinary teamwork.

Both of those terms, interdisciplinarity and teamwork, have become deeply woven into our effort. While a computer scientist and a historian teach the course, up to ten faculty mentors from across the university participate as “clients.” The course counts toward the computer science major’s project-class requirement, but nearly half the enrolled students are not CS majors. Agile design and group mechanics require organizational and communication skills above all else. And the projects themselves, as shown below, vary widely in the topic and demands, requiring flexibility, creativity, programming, artistry, and most significantly, collaboration.

This focus on interdisciplinary teamwork, and not just in the classroom, has led to a significant, if unexpected, outcome: the crystallization of a substantial community of faculty and students engaging in virtual reality related research from a wealth of disciplinary viewpoints. Equipment purchased for the course remain active and available throughout campus. Teaching projects have grown into research questions and collaborations. A significant research cluster in digital cultural heritage was formed not as a result of, but in synergy with, the community of class mentors, instructors, and students.

Evolution of the Course

Prior to offering the joint course, both Bodenheimer (CS) and Molvig (History) had previously offered single-discipline VR based courses.

From the Computer Science side, Bodenheimer had taught a full three-credit course on virtual reality to computer science students. In lecture and pedagogy this course covered a fairly standard approach to the material for a one semester course, as laid out by the Burea and Coiffet textbook or the more recent (and applicable) Lavalle textbook (Lavalle 2017). Topically, the course covered such material as virtual reality hardware, displays, sensors, geometric modeling, three-dimensional transformations, stereoscopic viewing, visual perception, tracking, and the evaluation of virtual reality experiences. The goal of the course was to teach the computer science students to analyze, design, and develop a complex software system in response to a set of computing requirements and project specifications that included usability and networking. The course was also project-based with teams of students completing the projects. Thus it focused on collaborative learning, and teamwork skills were taught as part of the curriculum, since there is significant work that shows these skills are best taught and do not emerge spontaneously (Kozlowski and Ilgen 2006). This practice allowed a project of significant complexity to be designed and implemented over the course of the semester, giving a practical focus to most of the topics covered in the lectures.

From History, Molvig offered an additional one credit “lab course” option for students attached to a survey of The Scientific Revolution. This lab option offered students the opportunity to explore the creation of and meaning behind historically informed re-constructions or simulations. The lab gave students their first exposure to a nascent technology alongside a narrative context in which to guide their explorations. Simultaneous to this course offering, Vanderbilt was increasing its commitment to the digital humanities, and this course allowed both its instructor and students to study the contours of this discipline as well. While this first offering of a digital lab experience lacked the firm technical grounding and prior coding experience of the computer science offering, the shared topical focus (the scientific revolution) made for boldly creative and ambitious projects within a given conceptual space.

Centering Interdisciplinarity

Unlike Bodenheimer, Molvig did not have a career-long commitment to the study of virtual reality. Molvig’s interest in VR comes rather from a science studies approach to emergent technology. And in 2016, VR was one of the highest profile and most accessible emergent technologies (alongside others such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, CRISPR, blockchain, etc). For Molvig, emergent technologies can be pithily described as those technologies that are about to go mainstream, that many people think are likely to be of great significance, but no one is completely certain when, for whom, how, or really even if, this will happen.

For VR then, in an academic setting, these questions look like this: Which fields is VR best suited for? Up to that point, it was reasonably common in computer science and psychology, and relatively rare elsewhere. How might VR be integrated into the teaching and research of other fields? How similar or dissimilar are the needs and challenges of these different disciplines pedagogical and research contexts?

Perhaps most importantly, how do we answer these questions? Our primary pedagogical approach crystallized around two fundamental questions:

  1. How can virtual reality inform the teaching and research of discipline X?
  2. How can discipline X inform the development of virtual reality experiences?

Our efforts to answer these questions led to the core feature that has defined our Virtual Reality Design course since its inception: interdisciplinarity. Rather than decide for whom VR is most relevant, we attempted to test it out as broadly as possible, in collaboration with as many scholars as possible.

Our course is co-taught by a computer scientist and a humanist. Furthermore, we invite faculty from across campus to serve as “clients,” each with a real-world, disciplinary specific problem toward which virtual reality may be applicable. While Molvig and Bodenheimer focused on both questions, our faculty mentors focused on question 1: is VR surgery simulation an effective tool? Can interactive, immersive 3D museums provide users new forms of engagement with cultural artifacts? How can VR and photogrammetry impact the availability of remote archeological sites? We will discuss select projects below, but as of our third offering of this course, we have had twenty-one different faculty serve as clients representing twelve different departments or schools, ranging from art history to pediatrics and chemistry to education. A full list of the twenty-four unique projects may be found in Appendix 1.

At the time of course planning, Vanderbilt began a program of University Courses, encouraging co-taught, cross disciplinary teaching experiments, incentivizing each with a small budget, which allowed us to purchase the hardware necessary to offer the course. One of our stated outcomes was to increase access to VR hardware, and we have intentionally housed the equipment purchased throughout campus. Currently, most available VR hardware available for campus use is the product of this course. Over time, purchases from our course have established 10 VR workstations across three different campus locations (Digital Humanities Center, The Wond’ry Innovation Center, and the School of Engineering Computer Lab). Our standard set up has been the Oculus Rift S paired with desktop PCs with minimum specs of 16GB RAM and 1080GTX GPUs.

As the design of the joint, team-taught and highly interdisciplinary course was envisioned, several course design questions presented themselves. In our first iteration of the course, a condensed and more accessible version of the computer science virtual reality class was lectured on. Thus Bodenheimer, the computer science instructor, lectured on most of the same topics he had lectured on but at a more general level, and focused on how the concepts were implemented in Unity, rather than from a more theoretical perspective that was present in the prior offering. Likewise, Molvig brought with him several tools of his discipline, a set of shared readings (such as the novel Ready Player One (Cline 2012)) and a response essay to the moral and social implications of VR. The class was even separated for two lectures, allowing Bodenheimer to lecture in more detail on C#, and Molvig to offer strategies on how to avoid C# entirely within Unity.

Subsequent offerings of the course, however, allowed us to abandon most of this structure, and to significantly revise the format. Our experience with how the projects and student teams worked and struggled led us to re-evaluate the format of the course. Best practices in teaching and learning recommend active, collaborative learning where students learn from their peers (Kuh et al. 2006). Thus, we adopted a structured format more conducive to teamwork, based on Agile (Pope-Ruark 2017). Agile is a framework and set of practices originally created for software development but which has much wider applicability today. It can be implemented as a structure in the classroom with a set of openly available tools that allow students to articulate, manage, and visualize a set of goals for a particular purpose, in our case, the creation of a virtual experience tailored to their clients specific research. The challenge for us, as instructors, was to develop methods to instrument properly the Agile methods so that the groups in our class can be evaluated on their use of them, and get feedback on them so that they can improve their practices. This challenge is ongoing. Agile methods are thus used in our class to help teams accomplish their collaborative goals and teach them teamwork practices.

Course Structure

We presume no prior experience with VR, the Unity3D engine, or C# for either the CS or non-CS students. Therefore the first third of the course is mainly focused on introducing those topics, primarily through lecture, demonstration, and a series of cumulative “daily challenges.” By the end of this first section of the course, all students are familiar with the common tools and practices, and capable of creating VR environments upon which they can act directly through the physics engine as well as in a predetermined, or scripted, manner. During the second third of the course, students begin working together on their group projects in earnest, while continuing to develop their skills through continued individual challenges, which culminate in an individual project due at the section’s end. For the second and third sections of the course, all group work incorporates aspects of the Agile method described above, with weekly in-class group standups, and a graded, bi-weekly sprint review, conducted before the entire class. The final section of the course is devoted entirely to the completion of the final group project, which culminates in an open “demo day” held during final examinations, which has proven quite popular.

Three-fifths of our students are upper level computer science students fulfilling a “project course” major requirement, while two-fifths of our students can be from any major except computer science. Each project team is composed of roughly five students with a similar overall ratio, and we tend to have about 50 students per offering. This distribution and size are enforced at registration because of the popularity of the CS major and demand for project courses in it. The typical CS student’s experience will involve at least three semesters of programming in Java and C++, but usually no knowledge of computer graphics or C#, the programming language used by Unity, our virtual reality platform. The non-CS students’ experience is more varied, but currently does not typically involve any coding experience. To construct the teams, we solicit bids from the students for their “top three” projects and “who they would like to work with.” The instructors then attempt to match students and teams so that everyone gets something that they want.

It is a fundamental assertion of this course that all members of a team so constructed can contribute meaningfully and substantially to the project. As it is perhaps obvious what the CS students contribute, it is important to understand what the non-CS students contribute. First, Unity is a sophisticated development platform that is quite usable, and, as mentioned, we spend significant course time teaching the class to use it. There is nothing to prevent someone from learning to code in C# using Unity. However, not everyone taking our class wants to be a coder, but they are interested in technology and using technical tools. Everyone can build models and design scenes in Unity. Also, these projects must be robust. Testing that incremental progress works and is integrated well into the whole project is key not only to the project’s success as a product, but also to the team’s grade. We also require that the teams produce documentation about their progress, and interact with their faculty mentor about design goals. These outward-facing aspects of the project are key to the project’s success and often done by the non-CS students. Each project also typically requires unique coding, and in our experience the best projects are one in which the students specialize into roles, as each project typically requires a significant amount of work. The Agile framework is key here, as it provides a structure for the roles and a way of tracking progress in each of them.

Since each project is varied, setting appropriate targets and evaluating progress at each review is one of the most significant ongoing challenges faced by the instructors.


A full list of the twenty-four projects may be found in Appendix 1.

Below are short descriptions and video walkthroughs of four distinctive projects that capture the depth, breadth, and originality fostered by our emphasis on interdisciplinarity in all aspects of the course design and teaching.

Example Project: Protein Modeling

The motivation for this project, mentored by Chemistry Professor Jens Meiler, came from a problem common to structural chemistry: the inherent difficulty of visualizing 3D objects. For this prototype, we aimed to model how simple proteins and molecules composed of a few tens of atoms interact and “fit” together. In drug design and discovery, this issue is of critical importance and can require significant amounts of computation (Allison et al. 2014). These interactions are often dominated by short-range van der Waals forces, although determining the correct configuration for the proteins to bind is challenging. This project illustrated that difficulty by letting people explore binding proteins together. Two proteins were given in an immersive environment that were graspable, and users attempted to fit them together. As they fit together, a score showing how well they fit was displayed. This score was computed based on an energy function incorporating Van der Waals attractive and repulsive potentials. The goal was to get the minimum score possible. The proteins and the energy equation were provided by the project mentor, although the students implemented a Van der Waals simulator within Unity for this project. Figures 1 and 2 show examples from the immersive virtual environment. The critical features of this project worth noting are that the molecules are three-dimensional structures that are asymmetric. Viewing them with proper depth perception is necessary to get an idea of their true shape. It would be difficult to recreate this simulation with the same effectiveness using desktop displays and interactions.

While issues of efficiency and effectiveness in chemical pedagogy drove our mentor’s interest, the student creators and demo day users were drawn to this project for its elements of science communication and gamification. By providing a running “high score” and providing a timed element, users were motivated to interact with the objects and experience far longer than with a 2D or static 3D visualization. One student member of this group did possess subject matter familiarity which helped incorporate the energy function into the experience.

Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers. Embedded video: Figure 1. Two proteins shown within the simulation. The larger protein on the left is the target protein to which the smaller protein (right) should be properly fit. A menu containing the score is shown past the proteins. Proteins may be grabbed, moved, and rotated using the virtual reality controllers.

Example Project: Vectors of Textual Movement in Medieval Cypress

Professor of French Lynn Ramey served as the mentor for this project. Unlike most other mentors, Prof. Ramey had a long history of using Unity3D and game technologies in both her research and teaching. Her goal in working with us was to recreate an existing prototype in virtual reality, and determine the added values of visual immersion and hand tracked interactivity. This project created a game that simulates how stories might change during transmission and retelling (Amer et al. 2018; Ramey et al. 2019). The crusader Kingdom of Cyprus served as a waypoint between East and West during the years 1192 to 1489. This game focuses on the early period and looks at how elements of stories from The Thousand and One Nights might have morphed and changed to please sensibilities and tastes of different audiences. In the game, the user tells stories to agents within the game, ideally gaining storytelling experience and learning the individual preferences of the agents. After gaining enough experience, the user can gain entry to the King’s palace and tell a story to the King, with the goal of impressing the King. During the game play, the user must journey through the Kingdom of Cyrus to find agents to tell stories to.

This project was very successful at showcasing the advantages of an interdisciplinary approach. Perhaps the project closest to a traditional video game, faculty and students both were constantly reminded of the interplay between technical and creative decisions. However, this was not simply an “adaption” of a finished cultural work into a new medium, but rather an active exploration of an open humanities research project asking how, why, when, and for whom are stories told. No student member of this group majored in the mentor’s discipline.

This project is ongoing, and more information can be found here: https://medievalstorytelling.org.

A video walkthrough of the game can be seen below.

Figure 2. Video walk-through of gameplay. Embedded video: Fig 2. Video walk-through of medieval storytelling project gameplay. Video shows gameplay in main screen, with small inset filming user in VR headset. Gameplay shows the goal and user interface by which players tell stories and explore medieval village. Scenes include a market, a castle, and a village environment.

Example Project: Interactive Geometry for K–8 Mathematical Visualization

In this project, Corey Brady, Professor of Education, challenged our students to take full advantage of the physical presence offered by virtual environments, and build an interactive space where children can directly experience “mathematical dimensionality.” Inspired by recent research (Kobiela et al. 2019; Brady et al. 2019) examining physical geometrical creation in two dimensions (think paint, brushes and squeegees), the students created a brightly lit and colored virtual room, where the user is initially presented with a single point in space. Via user input, the point can be stretched into a line, the line into a plane, and the plane into a solid (rectangles, cylinders, and prisms). While doing so, bar graph visualizations of length, width, height, surface area, and volume are updated in real-time while the user increases or decreases the object along its various axes.

Virtual Reality as an education tool has proven very popular, both amongst our students and in industry. No student member of this group specialized in education, but all members had of course first hand experience learning these concepts themselves as children. The opportunity to reimagine a nearly universal learning process was a significant draw for this project. After this course offering, Brady and Molvig have begun a collaboration to expand its utility.

A video demonstration of the project can be seen below.

Figure 3. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a rectangle. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background. Embedded video: Figure 3. Video demonstration of geometry visualization project gameplay. User manipulates the x, y, and z axes of a various shapes, including regular polygons and conic sections. Real-time calculations of surface area and volume are shown in the background.

Example Project: Re-digitizing Stereograms

For this project, Molvig led a team to bring nineteenth-century stereographic images into 21st century technology. Invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1838 and later improved by David Brewster, stereograms are nearly identical paired photographs that when viewed through a binocular display, a single “3D image” [1] was perceived by the viewer, often with an effect of striking realism. For this reason, stereoscopy is often referred to as “Victorian VR.” Hundreds of thousands of scanned digitized stereo-pair photos exist in archives and online collections, however it is currently extremely difficult to view these as intended in stereoscopic 3D. Molvig’s goal was to create a generalizable stereogram viewer: capable of bringing stereopair images from remote archives for viewing within a modern VR headset.

Student interest quickly coalesced around two sets of remarkable stereoscopic anatomical atlases, the Edinburgh Stereoscopic Atlas of Anatomy (1905) and Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy from the Stanford Medical Library. Driven by student interest, the 2019 project branched into a VR alternative to wetlab or flat 2D medical anatomy imagery. This project remains ongoing, as is Molvig’s original generalized stereo viewer, which now includes a machine learning based algorithm to automated the import and segmentation of any stereopair photograph.

Two demonstrations of the stereoview player are below, the first for medical anatomy images, the second are stereophotos taken during the American Civil War. All images appear in stereoscopic depth when viewed in the headset.

Figure 4. Demonstration of anatomy stereoscopic viewer. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library. Embedded video: Figure 4. Video demonstration of medical anatomy stereoscopic viewer project gameplay. User selects and relocates various stereoscopic images of cranial anatomy. Images from the Bassett Collection of Stereoscopic Images of Human Anatomy, Stanford Medical Library.
Figure 5. Demonstration of Civil War stereoviews. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection. Embedded video: Figure 5. Video demonstration of Civil War stereoview project gameplay. User selects and and relocated various stereoscopic images taken during the American Civil War. Images depict scenes from battlefields, army encampments, and war material preparations. Images from the Robert N. Dennis collection of stereoscopic views, New York Public Library Digital Collection.


This course has numerous challenges, both inside and outside of the classroom, and we have by no means solved them all.


Securing support for co-teaching is not always easy. We began offering this course under a Provost level initiative to encourage ambitious teaching collaborations across disciplines. This initiative made it straightforward to count co-teaching efforts with our Deans, and provided some financial support for the needed hardware purchases. However, that initiative was for three course offerings, which we have now completed. Moving forward, we will need to negotiate our course with our Deans.

We rely heavily on invested Faculty Mentors to provide the best subject matter expertise. So far we have had no trouble finding volunteers, and the growing community of VR engaged faculty has been one of the greatest personal benefits, but as VR becomes less novel, we may experience a falloff in interest.


This is both the most rewarding and most challenging aspect of this course. Securing student buy-in on the value of interdisciplinary teamwork is our most consistent struggle. In particular, these issues arise around the uneven distribution of C# experience, and perceived notions of what type of work is “real” or “hard.” To mitigate these issues, we devote significant time during the first month of the course exposing everyone to all aspects of VR project development (technical and non-technical), and require the adoption of “roles” within each project to make responsibilities clear and workload distributed.


Virtual reality is a rapidly evolving field, with frequent hardware updates and changing requirements. We will need to secure new funding to significantly expand or update our current equipment.

Conclusions and Lessons Learned

Virtual reality technology is more accessible than ever, but it is not as accessible as one might wish in a pedagogical setting. It is difficult to create even moderately rich and sophisticated environments, without the development expertise gleaned through exposure to the computer science curriculum. A problem thus arises on two fronts. First, exposure to the computer science curriculum at the depth currently required to develop compelling virtual reality applications should ideally not be required of everyone. Unfortunately, the state of the art of our tools currently makes this necessary. Second, those who study computer science and virtual reality focus on building the tools and technology of virtual reality, the theories and algorithms integral to virtual reality, and the integration of these into effective virtual reality systems. Our class represents a compromise solution to the accessibility problem by changing the focus away from development of tools and technology toward collaboration and teamwork in service of building an application.

Our class is an introduction to virtual reality in the sense that students see the capability of modern commodity-level virtual reality equipment, software, and these limitations. They leave the class understanding what types of virtual worlds are easy to create, and what types of worlds are difficult to create. From the perspective of digital humanities, our course is a leveraged introduction to technology at the forefront of application to the humanities. Students are exposed to a humanities-centered approach to this technology through interaction with their project mentors.

In terms of the material that we, the instructors, focus most on in class, our class is about teamwork and problem-solving with people one has not chosen to work with. We present this latter skill as one essential to a college education, whether it comes from practical reasons, e.g., that is what students will be faced with in the workforce (Lingard & Barkataki 2013), or from theoretical perspectives on best ways to learn (Vygotsky 1978). The interdisciplinarity that is a core feature of the course is presented as a fact of the modern workforce. Successful interdisciplinary teams are able to communicate and coordinate effectively with one another, and we emphasize frameworks that allow these things to happen.

Within the broader Vanderbilt curriculum, the course satisfies different curricular requirements. For CS students, the course satisfies a requirement that they participate in a group design experience as part of their major requirements. The interdisciplinary nature of the group is not a major requirement, but is viewed as an advantage, since it is likely that most CS majors will be part of interdisciplinary teams during their future careers. For non-CS students, the course currently satisfies the requirements of the Communication of Science and Technology major and minor.[2]

Over the three iterations of this course, we have learned that team teaching an interdisciplinary project course is not trivial. In particular, it requires more effort than each professor lecturing on their own specialty, and expecting effective learning to emerge from the two different streams. That expectation was closer to what we did in the first offering of this course, where we quickly perceived that this practice was not the most engaging format for the students, nor was it the most effective pedagogy for what we wanted to accomplish. The essence of the course is on creating teams to use mostly accessible technology to create engaging virtual worlds. We have reorganized our lecture and pedagogical practices to support this core. In doing this, each of us brings to the class our own knowledge and expertise on how best to accomplish that goal, and thus the students experience something closer to two views on the same problem. While we are iteratively refining this approach, we believe it is more successful.

Agile methods (Pope-Ruark 2017) have become an essential part of our course. They allow us to better judge the progress of the projects and determine where bottlenecks are occurring more quickly. They incentivize students to work consistently on the project over the course of the semester rather than trying to build everything at the end in a mad rush of effort. By requiring students to mark their progress on burn down charts, the students have a better visualization of the task remaining to be accomplished. Project boards associated with Agile can provide insight into the relative distribution of work that is occurring in the group, ideally allowing us to influence group dynamics before serious tensions arise.

This latter effort is a work in progress, however. A limitation of the course as it currently exists is that we need to do a better job evaluating teams (Hughes & Jones 2011). Currently our student evaluations rely too heavily on the final outcome of the project and not enough on the effectiveness of the teamwork within the team. Evaluating teamwork, however, has seemed cumbersome, and the best way to give meaningful feedback to improve teamwork practices is something we are still exploring. If we improved this practice, we could give students more refined feedback throughout the semester on their individual and group performance, and use that as a springboard to teach better team practices. Better team practices would likely result in increased quality of the final projects.


[1] These images are not truly three dimensional, as they cannot be rotated or peered behind. Rather two images are created precisely to fool the brain into adding a perception of depth into a single combined image.
[2] https://as.vanderbilt.edu/cst/. There is currently no digital humanities major or minor at Vanderbilt.


Allison, Brittany, Steven Combs, Sam DeLuca, Gordon Lemmon, Laura Mizoue, and Jens Meiler. 2014. “Computational Design of Protein–Small Molecule Interfaces.” Journal of Structural Biology 185, no. 2: 193–202.

Amer, Sahar, and Lynn Ramey. 2018. “Teaching the Global Middle Ages with Technology.” Parergon: Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Association for Medieval and Early Modern Studies 35: 179–91.

Brady, Corey, and Richard Lehrer. 2020. “Sweeping Area Across Physical and Virtual Environments.“ Digital Experiences in Mathematics Education: 1–33. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40751-020-00076-2.

Cline, Ernest. 2012. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books.

Hughes, Richard L., and Steven K. Jones. 2011. “Developing and assessing college student teamwork skills.“ New Directions for Institutional Research 149: 53–64.

Kobiela, Marta, and Richard Lehrer. 2019. “Supporting Dynamic Conceptions of Area and its Measure.” Mathematical Thinking and Learning: 1–29.

Kozlowski, Steve W.J., and Daniel R. Ilgen. 2006. “Enhancing the Effectiveness of Work Groups and Teams.” Psychological Science in the Public Interest 7, no.3: 77–124.

Kuh, George D., Jillian Kinzie, Jennifer A. Buckley, Brian K. Bridges, and John C. Hayek. 2006. What Matters to Student Success: A Review of the Literature. Vol. 8. Washington, DC: National Postsecondary Education Cooperative.

LaValle, Steve 2017. Virtual Reality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lingard, Robert, and Shan Barkataki 2011. “Teaching Teamwork in Engineering and Computer Science.” 2011 Frontiers in Education Conference. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Pope-Ruark, Rebecca. 2017. Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramey, Lynn, David Neville, Sahar Amer, et al. 2019. “Revisioning the Global Middle Ages: Immersive Environments for Teaching Medieval Languages and Culture.” Digital Philology 8: 86–104.

Takala, Tuukka M., Lauri Malmi, Roberto Pugliese, and Tapio Takala. 2016. “Empowering students to create better virtual reality applications: A longitudinal study of a VR capstone course.” Informatics in Education 15, no. 2: 287–317.

Zimmerman, Guy W., and Dena E. Eber. 2001. “When worlds collide!: an interdisciplinary course in virtual-reality art.” ACM SIGCSE Bulletin 33, no. 1.

Appendix 1: Complete Project List

Project Title (Mentor, Field, Year(s))

  1. Aristotelian Physics Simulation (Molvig, History of Science, 2017, 2018).
  2. Virtual Excavation (Wernke, Archeology, 2017, 2018).
  3. Aech’s Basement: scene from Ready Player One (Clayton, English, 2017).
  4. Singing with Avatar (Reiser, Psychology, 2017).
  5. Visualizing Breathing: interactive biometric data (Birdee, Medicine, 2017).
  6. Memory Palace (Kunda, Computer Science, 2017).
  7. Centennial Park (Lee, Art History, 2017).
  8. Stereograms (Peters, Computer Science, 2017).
  9. Medieval Storytelling (Ramey, French, 2017, 2018, 2019).
  10. VR locomotion (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2017).
  11. 3D chemistry (Meiler, Chemistry, 2018).
  12. Data Visualization (Berger, Computer Science, 2018).
  13. Adversarial Maze (Narasimham and Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2018).
  14. Operating Room Tool Assembly (Schoenecker, Medicine, 2018).
  15. Autism Spectrum Disorder: table building simulation (Sarkar, Mechanical Engineering, 2019).
  16. Brain Flow Visualization (Oguz, Computer Science, 2019).
  17. Interactive Geometry (Brady, Learning Sciences, 2019).
  18. Jekyll and Hyde (Clayton, English, 2019).
  19. fMRI Brain Activation (Chang, Computer Science, 2019).
  20. Virtual Museum (Robinson, Art History, 2019).
  21. Peripersonal Space (Bodenheimer, Computer Science, 2019).
  22. Solar System Simulation (Weintraub, Astronomy, 2019).
  23. Accessing Stereograms (Molvig, History, 2019).

About the Authors

Ole Molvig is an assistant professor in the Department of History and the Program in Communication of Science and Technology. He explores the interactions among science, technology, and culture from 16th-century cosmology to modern emergent technologies like virtual reality or artificial intelligence. He received his Ph.D. in the History of Science from Princeton University.

Bobby Bodenheimer is a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Vanderbilt University. He also holds an appointment in the Department of Psychology and Human Development. His research examines virtual and augmented reality, specifically how people act, perceive, locomote, and navigate in virtual and augmented environments. He is the recipient of an NSF CAREER award and received his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology.

Skip to toolbar