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BU to help build computer skills of southwest Native Americans

Visual art and high technology combine to benefit high school on tribal land

The artistic tradition among New Mexico’s Native Americans spans many centuries and many genres, from painting to jewelry to sculpture. It is now about to enter the 21st century, as well as another genre, as BU and the University of New Mexico (UNM) combine Native American culture and art with high technology.  

The 28-month pilot program New Voices and New Visions for Engaging Native American Students in Computer Science is intended to expand the computer skills of Native American high school and college students and create a virtual world that integrates Native American imagery, iconography, sounds, and aesthetics. The creation of that world, program authors hope, will provide a compelling force that will encourage high school students to take part.

The work was funded by a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Broadening Participation in Computing program. BU received more than $300,000, and UNM received almost $200,000 to work together to create a compelling educational experience for students at UNM and Walatowa High Charter School, a public school on tribal land belonging to the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico. The school has a 100 percent Native American student enrollment.

The project employs virtual reality technologies, the Access Grid — an advanced videoconferencing system that operates over high-speed networks across the country — and BU’s stereoscopic Deep Vision Display Wall, a 15-foot-by-8-foot high-resolution (18 million pixels) screen that is used for both researchers’ computer modeling projects and computer-generated visual art.

“BU and the University of New Mexico have had a relationship for several years, and we were both looking for an opportunity to work on something like this,” says Jennifer Teig von Hoffman, project manager of the Scientific Computing and Visualization Group at BU’s Office of Information Technology. In October 2004, Teig von Hoffman spent a week traveling to the different members of the Tribal Virtual Network, a group of tribal organizations in New Mexico coordinated by Maria Williams, an assistant professor of Native American studies at UNM. “They had deployed Access Grid technology at those locations, so we started discussing what we could be doing collaboratively that would take advantage of the infrastructure that’s already in place,” says Teig von Hoffman, a co–principal investigator for the project.

The project’s curriculum was developed by Williams and fellow UNM faculty members Greg Cajete, Beverly Singer, and Arthur MacCabe, Native American artist Felix Vigil, and BU faculty members Teig von Hoffman, Glenn Bresnahan, director of the Scientific Computing and Visualization Group, Erik Brisson, the group’s associate director, and Laura Giannitrapani, its manager of graphics consulting.

This summer Bresnahan and Brisson will install a Deep Vision Display Wall at UNM’s High Performance Computing Laboratory, and next spring, Vigil, a painter raised on the Jemez Pueblo — whose art is based on Native American mythology and themes — will work with 11 computer science students at UNM. (Click on slide show above to play.) The following summer, UNM students will be given internships to work with Walatowa Charter High School students at a six-week computer science camp.

“In the summer of 2007, BU computer scientists will install a second Deep Vision Display Wall, this one in the Jemez Pueblo Higher Education Center for the Walatowa Charter High School students and others to use,” says Teig von Hoffman. “The goal is for students to learn more about opportunities in computer science and related fields of study, including the programs at UNM and BU.”