Amazon Catalyst grants advance projects with global impact

Two people sitting in front of a wall covered in sticky notes. One person wearing a VR headset sits next to another person pointing off screen.The Amazon Catalyst Program at WSU awarded nearly $20,000 to two teams comprised of research faculty and students from varied disciplines and locations.

Team Cross-Cultural Optics, led by Julie Kmec, professor of sociology, was awarded a grant to develop a virtual reality environment that enables female engineers based in the U.S. to explore engineering spaces elsewhere in the world that have higher levels of engineering participation by women. In the U.S., women hold 24% of engineering degrees but represent only 18% of the engineering labor force. The team aims to create a visual world and set of narratives that will provide users an opportunity to experience the stories of other engineers in countries across the globe where women represent a higher percentage of the engineering student body and workforce; enabling them to share testimonies, seek advice, learn from others’ experiences, and problem solve.

Julie Kmec

The Amazon Catalyst collaborative program funds projects with potential global impact. In this second round of grants, applicants were asked to consider the themes of urban transportation and computational social science and submit innovative ideas that have the possibility for big change in these areas. In addition to financial funding, the 2019 WSU teams will be a part of the Amazon Catalyst Fellows, a community of previous winners, who share access to the program’s resources and mentorship.

“We were pleased with the applicants’ response to both themes. Just like our applicants, at Amazon, we are always innovating, and we want to offer the best program for our university innovators and entrepreneurs” said H. B. Siegel, who oversees the Catalyst collaborative at Amazon.

The second team selected for a 2019 grant, Team Virtual Reality 360, is led by Don McMahon, assistant professor of special education technology. They will continue developing a virtual reality app that implements video modeling, social-skills instruction, and interactive choices to help students with autism develop and hone their social skills. The 360-degree VR modeling app will provide a way to implement immersive, first-person video experiences that support students who could benefit from ‘failure free’ practice of social skills.

The third cycle of the Amazon Catalyst program will open in the fall, said said Brian Kraft, assistant vice president, Innovation and Research Engagement Office. “The WSU team will work with Amazon to select three new themes for this next round that resonate with the research being done at WSU.”

“We look forward to another successful response from our students and faculty who can bring forward great ideas with the potential for big change and bigger impact,” said Marie Mayes, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies.

The 2019 grant recipients represent WSU’s Department of Sociology, College of Arts and Sciences; School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture; and the College of Education. The WSU teams are collaborating with researchers and students from the University of Texas at San Antonio; Purdue University; and the Virtual Technology and Design VR Lab at University of Idaho.

Visit the Amazon Catalyst at WSU website to learn more.


Top photo: Launched in 2018, the collaborative program between Amazon and WSU funds projects with potential global impact. Photo courtesy of Teresa Walker, Purdue School of Engineering Education.

Adapted from WSU Insider