Open Doors to the Arts

Lehigh students who took part in the Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellowship project called "Open Doors to the Arts" created immersive tours of LUAG for students of the Centennial School.

Lehigh Students Pioneer Immersive Art Experience for Students with Disabilities

Project utilizes 360-degree technology to inspire Centennial School students through the power of arts.

With support from the Office of Creative Inquiry, a team of motivated Lehigh students has come together for a Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellowship (LVSIF) project called "Open Doors to the Arts" that aims to create immersive tours for students of the Centennial School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The school, which hosts the East Coast's first Immersive Learning Center (ILC), serves students with emotional and behavioral disorders and autism spectrum disorders.

The tours will “transport” the students to the Lehigh University Art Galleries (LUAG), allowing them to experience the world of art in a whole new way. Built in 2021, the ILC features three walls displaying 360-degree videos and photos, providing students with a unique and engaging learning experience.

“We know that exposure to the arts provides a range of potential benefits that enhance the educational outcomes for students,” said Centennial School Director Julie Fogt. “The Lehigh University Art Galleries feature a variety of artists and styles, which will also expose our students to diverse perspectives and cultures that may help broaden their understanding of the world and foster empathy and understanding for others.”

The Open Doors to the Arts project is specifically designed to reach middle school students and some high schoolers at Centennial School. To create engaging content, team members use a 360-degree camera to capture images of the art gallery and then develop interactive and accessible content tailored to the needs of students with disabilities.

We know that exposure to the arts provides a range of potential benefits that enhance the educational outcomes for students

Centennial School Director Julie Fogt

Y. Lam '24, a double major in art and psychology, who is also enrolled in the 4+1 Accelerated Master's Program for Elementary Education, expressed gratitude for emerging technology's role in assisting students with learning, emotional and behavioral disabilities.

"Creating a customized tour for students in need is essential," said Lam. "Based on our observations of Centennial students, we have designed and developed a tour specifically suited for them, including audio descriptions to accompany the gallery pieces, tailored to their instructional level. Applying 360-degree technology, we can deliver an engaging and meaningful art tour that captivates our target audience and encourages interaction with the content."

The team also utilizes Matterport, a software typically used by real estate companies, to add touchpoints and create virtual tours of the Lehigh University Art Galleries. This allows Centennial School students to choose how they want to receive information about the art pieces, whether auditorily or visually.

Sara Heintzelman, the school's technology integration specialist, said the student team members had been extensively involved in all aspects of the project, from capturing footage to developing scaffolded questions and videos that assist Centennial School students in interpreting art.

"Team members have also taken responsibility for marketing and logo creation while gaining valuable firsthand experience observing how students with disabilities learn," she added.

Although the ILC at Centennial School is the first of its kind on the East Coast, the team intends to share its content with other institutions as more immersive learning spaces are developed worldwide. They are creating software allowing users to access virtual tours on desktops, laptops and tablets, albeit with a slightly less immersive experience.

Lehigh students involved in the Open Doors to the Arts project

Lehigh students have been involved in all aspects of the Open Doors to the Arts project.

Emily Tsao '25, a graphic and product design major, expressed that the project significantly contributed to her progress toward achieving her career objectives.

"Making a positive impact in the realm of art is my ultimate goal after graduation," Tsao said. "Through this project, I've discovered the importance of personalized art learning experiences for students with disabilities. Additionally, it has provided me with an opportunity to apply the knowledge I've gained in a practical context."

The immersive aspect of the art project is just the beginning for Centennial School and LVSIF initiatives. Another LVSIF project, "Social Emotional Learning Enhanced 360 Immersive Experiences," mentored by Professors Zilong Pan and Lia Sandilos along with students Zelalem Ayalew ‘26 and Ava DeLauro ‘26, is developing learning modules in environmental science and biology for students with disabilities. This project seeks to offer an immersive learning experience that sparks students' interest in science.

In addition to the arts and sciences, the Centennial School is exploring other potential uses for the ILC, such as virtual concerts, future job training and therapeutic applications.

As the LVSIF project teams continue capturing 360-degree content, the collaboration showcases how technology can bridge the gap between art and accessibility, creating new opportunities for students with disabilities.

Story by Haidan Hu

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