Mid-Pacific expands storytelling capacity with virtual reality technology

Summit + Mid-Pacific

Oahu K-12 Schools
Place Manoa
Text Will Caron
Art Scot Allen
Thread School of the Future

Mid-Pacific is a school with a rich history of innovation. In a world of evolving technology, Mid-Pacific faculty embrace an evolving platform, to prepare students for the future. With an immersive suite of technology programs that utilizes state-of-the-art equipment, innovation on the Mid-Pacific campus is scanned digitally, printed in 3-D and experienced in virtual reality. The Mid-Pacific classroom is an environment where learning is fun and engaging, and where students are challenged to question, inquire and imagine.

A small school in Mānoa Valley is using a technology today that may be commonplace in the future. In collaboration with Stanford University, Mid-Pacific is using VR—Virtual Reality technology—to broaden the experiences of its students.

As the school’s Chief Innovation Officer, Brian Dote first introduced VR to Mid-Pacific when he started in 2014. At the time, the VR technology he brought with him was limited in power and scope, but Dote saw the potential for the technology to be used as a dynamic teaching tool.

“What I strive to do is to bring in tomorrow’s technologies today, so that our students are exposed to technologies that are coming rather than ones that are already in use,” says Dote. “In 2014, you could not buy VR headsets commercially yet. We developed a workshop for the students to study potential uses of the technology. One of the ideas that came out of that workshop process was for students to use virtual reality as a means to gain insight and empathy, to tell a story, to support a viewpoint or illustrate a point in a new way. As part of our vision statement we want our students to be digital storytellers, and virtual reality is a perfect tool to develop the techniques and skill sets required to do that.”

“If we think about our lives as individuals, we are 3-D beings living in a three-dimensional world,” says Paul Turnbull, Mid-Pacific president. “And yet, to date, the vast majority of the storytelling we have engaged in as human beings takes place with two-dimensional media. But we now are gaining access to a number of emerging technologies that could change storytelling as we know it.”

This immersive technology program was launched in 2016 with 3-D digital storytelling in mind. The program features several components, including the capture of real world objects with three-dimensional laser scanning and the manipulation of those images with specialized software.

“Let’s say that we 3-D-scan a chair. We can use the software to manipulate the 3-D scan and tell a story,” says Turnbull. “Suddenly, that chair represents a piece of history: perhaps it’s the chair that Queen Lili‘uokalani occupied when she was wrestling with decisions about the future of Hawai‘i. Suddenly that chair has a much deeper and broader meaning to individuals. Suddenly, not only are you participating in history, you’re adding your own perspective to it and you are breaking down all geographic or chronologic barriers that may exist in real life.”

Turnbull adds, “When you create a learning environment that touches students on a visceral level, that allows us to then have a deeper conversation about historical and social contexts—which is demonstrative of the power of storytelling.”

For more than a decade, Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) has been using VR to examine human behavior, studying everything from efficacy to empathy. As Mid-Pacific was seeking to expand the breadth and depth of its technology-based curricula, school officials sought out an organization with industry authority that could help take Mid-Pacific’s programming to the next level of cutting-edge learning. The school found that authority in the VHIL.

Elise Ogle, the project manager at the VHIL, visited Mid-Pacific in 2016 and was impressed by both the quality of work that the students were generating on campus and the technological infrastructure present—so impressed that she invited Mid-Pacific students to participate in a human behavior study on changing perceptions of homelessness. For the first time ever, high school students helped the researchers at the VHIL collect data on empathy via a survey of individual feelings toward the concept of homelessness and homeless individuals.

The study asked the question: how do people’s feelings change after going through the experience of being homelessness themselves? In order to answer that question, the students went through a virtual reality experience that put them into an immersive environment from the perspective of a homeless individual, giving them a first-hand look at what it would be like to lose a house and wind up on the street.

“This wasn’t photorealistic; it wasn’t cinema—it was a 3-D game engine that created a virtual role-playing environment,” Dote explains. “How do you function as a homeless individual? How do you get to work? How do you find a place to eat or sleep or do laundry? These are things we don’t usually think of when we see homeless people on the street. The students really had their eyes opened and most of them recorded fascinating experiential data about what they felt and how they may have changed their world view on this topic. It was truly an amazing experience for them.”

In some ways, the empathetic input that’s received from VR is similar to the input received when watching theater: in both cases, the observer is asked to step into someone else’s shoes. Mid-Pacific has long been known for its excellent drama program, and this makes incorporating VR into storytelling curricula a more natural progression than it might otherwise be.

“Creativity is a key facet of our programming from elementary all the way through high school, and it’s one of the reasons why we can do this,” Turnbull says. “The other prong, of course, is that we’re no strangers to innovative thinking and technology. We embrace new technologies and make a real effort to integrate them into our programming.”

The result is not just college-ready programming, but world-ready and industry-ready programming as well.

“When you do that in a way that is meaningful, students learn how to tell the right story at the right time to the right audience,” says Turnbull. “When you combine those things and integrate the technological world of virtual and augmented reality, those students are going to become leaders in the field. They’re going to be creators of rich content centered around meaningful conversations that make a difference in the world.”

As technology continues to mold our society in radical new ways, education itself must evolve to prepare students for a sometimes strange new world. For Dote, this means schools need to focus less on teaching specific skill sets and focus more on teaching modes of thinking and methods of learning. “We try to teach the ability to deconstruct problems, no matter what the problems are; and to solve them with any tools available. Because I’m confident that the tools and techniques are going to continue to change rapidly. They’re going to change faster than education can keep up with. So it’s not about the tool so much as the critical thinking and developing problem-solving abilities so that students know which tool to use and when,” he says.

“It’s scary for teachers and faculty and for our parents, but I think we need to start teaching these new, open-ended ways of thinking to kids today,” continues Dote. “And that innovation lies in teaching the concept that knowledge is everywhere: it is the epitome of democratized goods. The fundamental understanding of those concepts is critical. And I think the time to teach that is right now.”


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