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Five San Diego State University research teams are proposing tangible pathways to foster social justice in professional, educational, historical and social contexts. Five San Diego State University research teams are proposing tangible pathways to foster social justice in professional, educational, historical and social contexts.

Big Ideas for Social Justice

The five ideas aim to address homelessness, empathy, ethnic studies, and leverage comics and artificial intelligence.
By Padma Nagappan

Third of four articles in a series on Big Ideas.

In light of the events of the past year, social justice has renewed importance in today’s world. The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought to the forefront the gaps in health disparities, access to resources, and racial inequities in our society.

Five San Diego State University research teams are proposing tangible pathways to foster social justice in professional, educational, historical and social contexts, empowering communities to eliminate social and economic disparities.

Social justice is one key category of Big Ideas which represents innovative solutions to real world problems. The other categories include Health and Well-beingClimate Change and Transborder Solutions. The ideas have been proposed by teams of cross-disciplinary researchers across campus who will work in tandem with students and the community. 

The Big Ideas initiative seeks to combine, leverage and promote SDSU’s strengths for the betterment of the world. The initiative was launched by President Adela de la Torre in fall 2019, and 17 teams have advanced to the next stage, following a year of ideation and discussion.

Here is a look at the proposals, which will be part of a video showcase series — Short Films for Big Ideas — followed by a webinar and moderated discussion scheduled for 4-5 p.m. Thursday, March 18, via Zoom.

Addressing Homelessness

Homelessness and affordable housing are urgent and closely interlinked socioeconomic issues. San Diego County has more than 7,600 homeless individuals according to Count-in-Time data for 2020; the statewide figure is 151,000.

When Mounah Abdel-Samad saw a homeless person fighting paramedics trying to help him in upstate New York many years ago, it brought forth the juxtaposition of poverty-stricken people on the streets in one of the richest countries in the world. The public affairs associate professor and a cross-disciplinary team of 25 researchers have come together to understand what’s at the core of homelessness, and how to prevent and reduce it. 

Their approach will focus on evidence-based solutions tempered with empathy. They will also educate the next generation of practitioners and the current workforce to address the barriers and social determinants that drive homelessness.

“We’ve been engaging with the community on individual and institutional levels, but with this initiative what we want to do is enhance it so it becomes a national model for understanding, preventing and reducing homelessness,” Abdel-Samad said.

The team will also engage community and industry partners in assessing the effectiveness of intervention strategies, and create awareness in the community through arts, communication and journalism. 

Empathy Lens

Empathy is highly valued, but sometimes hard to come by. Immersive learning could change that status quo, and help our society become more tolerant and empathetic.

An SDSU team of experts will leverage virtual reality tools to help the public build empathy and mutual understanding by figuratively walking in someone else’s shoes. 

Virtual reality can help doctors and nurses in hospitals experience what it’s like to be a patient suffering intense pain or palpitations. A hiring committee could learn what it’s like to be on the other side of the table, as an applicant from a different cultural, ethnic or racial background. It can also help expedite understanding between conflicting parties who bring very different perspectives to a negotiation.

“The Empathy Lens is a technology to reverse years of conditioning that people may have without even realizing it,” said James Frazee, chief academic technology officer and associate vice president. “Through virtual reality simulation, participants can be inside the head of another person and hear self-talk, from people who think, speak and act differently from them.”

The team envisions using these tools for training and real life, to enable participants to experience what it’s like to work with, serve, hire or teach people from different cultures or identities.

“If we are going to change dispositions around issues of race and discrimination, the only way we can address bias is by taking someone else’s perspective,” said J. Luke Wood, vice president and chief diversity officer. 

SDSU Center for K-12 Ethnic Studies

As ethnic studies become more widely adopted at the K-12 level, this is an important time to leverage schooling as a vehicle for positive social change. 

“We’re living in a particularly tenuous moment in U.S history,” said Michael Domínguez, assistant professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies. “Our nation is more polarized than it ever has  been. Systemic racism, xenophobia, these issues are more pressing. At the core, these are challenges that only education can solve.”

This project aims to establish a center at SDSU to advance innovations around K-12 ethnic studies. Faculty from Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, Chicana and Chicano Studies, and Education will come together to collaborate on the center. 

They will work on advancing knowledge on the most effective ways to teach ethnic studies, diversify the teacher workforce, create a teaching credential, and provide professional development opportunities.

The center will actively shape a new generation of diverse educators whose positive impacts on youth will be felt locally, regionally and nationally. 

“Research shows that early purposeful engagement for K-12 students with ethnic studies leads to better cultural awareness,” Domínguez said. “By leveraging our expertise in ethnic studies and education at SDSU, we can partner with schools and community partners to disrupt the malignancies of racism.” 

SmartInteract: AI for Online Teaching Feedback 

When students attend classes online, advanced technology provides them with experiences that closely mimic in-person classes. But how does a teacher or professor assess how well they understand the lesson and how engaged they are in the activity?

Artificial intelligence (AI) can fill this knowledge gap, helping educators receive real-time feedback by automatically recognizing unseen, unattended emotions and the unspoken intentions of participants. 

“In an online class, an instructor can see 20 to 30 faces on the screen, but it can be difficult to assess how everyone is doing,” said Yang Xu, computer science faculty. “Our software, SmartInteract, can predict student interactions from a gallery view and inform instructors about communicating better in the class.”

The software will be free and open source. Xu envisions it will help even the quiet and shy students become engaged in an online class.

Researchers from SDSU’s computer science, journalism and media studies departments will pool their expertise to develop AI algorithms that capture and analyze facial nuances from students which will help educators develop better situational awareness and adapt their lessons accordingly.

Using Comics for Social Justice

Generations of children and youth have spent many hours reading comics, traveling to far away lands, feeding their fascination for superheroes, and learning about people much like themselves facing real-life issues. 

Research shows comics are a great medium to address timely social issues, from pandemic diseases and racial injustice to wealth inequality, immigration and more. 

Led by Elizabeth Pollard, professor of history, and Pamela Jackson, popular culture librarian, the grassroots collaboration between humanists, educators, librarians, scientists, and artists from across SDSU and the wider San Diego community envisions becoming the nation's leading comic studies collaborative. 

The team believes  the study of comics can bring transformational experiences that advocate for social justice, imagine audacious solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems, and promote the idea that individuals can make a difference. The SDSU Library curates a large collection of comics that will serve as an innovative resource for teaching and research.

“We can build on this collection and amplify our outreach to develop new courses and bring new faculty and visiting scholars to campus,” Jackson said. “We can provide transformative opportunities for community members, K-12 students and SDSU students. When scholars investigate and artists create, and collaborate with the community, measurable social change is not far beyond.”