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Wyoming High School Students Create Art in a Virtual World

July 22, 2014
Students working with virtual reality visor
University of Wyoming Summer High School Institute student Dennis Beck of Lovell wears 3-D imaging goggles to experience what it is like to be inside of the world he has created. UW computer scientist Amy Banic assists Beck during a class that exposes students to a whole new world of capabilities based on their own creative instincts. (UW Photo)

Some high school students cringe at the thought of science, mathematics and computer programming activities. Typically, many avoid taking courses in these disciplines and justify their decision by saying, “This isn’t for me.”

Such attitudes toward STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines are changing for students enrolled in a University of Wyoming High School Summer Institute course, “Generative Art in a Virtual World.” Taught by UW computer science professors Amy Banic and Ruben Gamboa, the course teaches visually inspired programming that exposes students to a whole new world of capabilities based on their own creative instincts.

Gamboa is the classic computer scientist who can convey technical skills. Banic is an applied computer scientist who can convey skills for virtual reality and computer graphics. She also has a background in traditional art and can provide lessons in composition, color theory, use of positive and negative space, and other artistic challenges. Together, they offer the students a rich, creative experience.

“Our goal is to convince them that, even if they don’t like it, they can succeed in STEM fields,” Gamboa says. “Many of them are from rural areas and don’t have a lot of experience in these areas, and we show them that they can do this.”

Banic adds, “What is great about this technology is that it connects people. If they like it, they don’t have to stop after three weeks. When they return home, they can continue learning together in this environment with us, each other, and even other students.”

Banic and Gamboa have connected their class in the past with another summer high school program led by Clemson University’s Larry Hodges, Banic says.

“There was a lot of excitement from students in both locations. How great is it that we can provide opportunities for students to learn with other students across the nation?” Banic says. She hopes their success will encourage more groups to have programs like this so high school students can have a virtual network of peers with which to learn and grow.

“A larger peer support group may be one way to foster the growth of the number of women and underrepresented minorities in computing,” Banic adds.

The art portion of the class is the hook that attracts some of the students and, once they are in, Banic and Gamboa subtly introduce them to computation skills to design and create virtual images. The instructors purposely avoid using words such as “programming” and “computer language” and, instead, use words like “behavior” to encourage the students to incorporate into their projects functions that are essentially computer programming instructions.

“Often times, we will see them light up when they realize they can perform these kinds of programming tasks that seemed so remote to them before they tried it in class,” Gamboa says. “We get them involved in doing these behaviors themselves, even though they may not know they are actually writing programming.”

“We can teach them certain skills and programming challenges, and they can take it from there,” he adds. “Some of these kids are phenomenally talented.”

Students have commented that they liked the assignments, making art, having the freedom to build what they wanted, and learning all the cool things they could do in a virtual world. They say the class was comfortable, different, challenging and fun. Some students commented that they learned how to make people look at something in new ways, how to code, and to express creativity through virtual art.

Banic adds an interactive 3-D element to the experience. Wearing 3-D imaging goggles, the students can actually experience what it is like to be inside of the world they have created.

“There is a sense of wonderment when students are able to see their own art in a life-like size and be able to move around their piece as if it were real,” Banic says.

Additionally, UW computer science students are available to work one on one to advise the high school students about their projects. Gamboa says their presence adds a peer programming component that helps the students grasp some of the concepts in a language with which they are familiar.

Banic says tiered programming structure such as this can provide many benefits for both levels of students.

“We use tiered peer mentoring because it has been found to be an effective means of retaining participation of underrepresented minorities in computing and found to be very effective for the success of the newer students in learning new material,” she says.

“Computers are everywhere, and we provide them with the skills they need to create three-dimensional images,” Gamboa says. “None of these students will be afraid to take on those challenges. Our ultimate success would be that a student says, ‘I like this so much, I want to take computer science in college.’”

Some past students have made similar comments after the class. Banic adds, “We hope that students leave with a sense that programming can serve as another medium, like painting or drawing, for imagination and creativity. We need creative thinkers in computing fields.”

About the UW Summer High School Institute

More than 80 sophomores from 75 schools in 50 Wyoming school districts attended the three-week institute, an educational journey that allows them to explore their intellectual, social and creative interests. Each day, the students take two classes taught by some of UW’s outstanding faculty members. Classes range from philosophy to DNA to robotics, pharmacy and electronics.

Athletic activities, talent shows, picnics, community service, dances, guest speakers, attendance at local concerts and plays, visits to museums and enrichment excursions complement the classroom experience. The institute is sponsored by UW with funding from the Wyoming State Legislature.

Students enrolled in the “Generating Art in a Virtual World” class, listed by hometown, were:

Big Piney -- Stephenie Knoll.

Casper -- Conor Willadson.

Cheyenne -- Rachel LaFaso.

Dubois -- Megan Yaracz.

Gillette -- Baylee Swenson.

Green River -- Kamden Carroll.

Lander -- Annika Poitras.

Lovell -- Dennis Beck.

Pinedale -- Casey Key.

Powell -- Keegan McLain.

Rock Springs -- Ethan Garrett.

Sheridan -- Samantha Hamilton.

Southeast -- Haden Grandy.

Torrington -- Cori Gill.

Upton -- Seth Jones.

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