The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Juan Rodriguez lost his brother to gun violence in 2014. Now a local teacher at Hope High School in Providence, he’s committed to finding after-school and summertime activities for local kids.
In 2019, he launched Winners Circle XR, an organization that offers both after- and in-school programs, starting in the fifth grade, that teaches students how to use VR and other technology tools to tell stories.
Q: What are some of the programs you have at Winners Circle?
Rodriguez: Our XR Academy provides a number of programs, from designing 3D environments to 3D models. Students will be able to build VR robotics, building and programming robots in VR (virtual reality). I’ll be introducing 360 images where students will be able to create tours of their community center, their school, their church, or anything else that they want to showcase.
Our 360 video program is where students can share stories of their favorite location. So you’ll be able to put on a headset and feel like you’re there with that student. We also just received a license for VR sports.
Lastly, we have a 3D design and coding program where students design 3D models and then brings everything to life in that environment with some coding.
Q: What are some of the projects your students have worked on?
Rodriguez: I had a student design an exhibit of Michael Jordan that was completely interactive. You put on a VR headset to view it and can click through images and learn about his career. Another student, who was from Cambodia, did an entire tour where they show you what it’s like there, the history, all while showing different elements such as monuments and temples, animals, food, and so on. You’re really learning about the country from this student’s perspective, but you feel like you’re there.
Q: Who are the students you’re working with?
Rodriguez: I started with grade five and older, but I’m hoping to implement this K-12 in the next few years. I’ve partnered with different organizations that already had relationships with schools. Last year, I worked with Calcutt Middle School in Central Falls and we’re keeping that partnership strong. I’m hoping to reach more students there this year and in Providence.
Q: Why these school districts first?
Rodriguez: Being a former student of the Providence school system, and now an educator there, it’s clear that there’s a huge lack of resources. I have a passion for technology, and something like VR can enhance a child’s education. We’re even offering VR tutoring, where they get a headset and it helps them retain the information that they already learned in school.
I want to provide an option for these young folks to have a better option after school.
Q: What are your long-term goals?
Rodriguez: I’d like to develop some programs in Newport’s and Woonsocket’s schools, in addition to Central Falls’ and Providence’s schools. I want to get to where the students are struggling the most.