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Dr. Joe Cecil interacts with an autistic student using VR technology to study the solar system.

OSU professor wins White House recognition

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Last week, Oklahoma State University computer science professor Joe Cecil received special recognition from the White House: the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring.

Cecil, who has taught at OSU since 2009, is one of just 15 award recipients and the only faculty member in the state to receive the award, which recognizes the critical role mentors play outside traditional classrooms in the academic and professional development of the future STEM workforce. 

“I feel humbled and honored to receive this award on behalf of my students, their parents and my mentors,” Cecil said. “It is a testament to my K-12 and university collaborators, who have inspired and worked with me in helping minority, autistic and physically disabled students soar high and realize their dreams of becoming engineers and scientists. The support from National Science Foundation, NASA and others underscores our nation’s commitment to foster an inclusive culture, encouraging all students to pursue careers in STEM.”

Cecil’s mentoring, which began at New Mexico State University in 2001, focuses on both K-12 and college students. To date, nearly 800 students in elementary through high school have participated in his Soaring Eagle program. Through this program, he designed virtual reality-based learning environments to introduce STEM careers to minority students, women, autistic students, those with physical disabilities and others. 

His primary motivation for creating the Soaring Eagle program was a desire to inspire young students and get them excited about STEM.

“I started designing and building such virtual learning environments (VLEs), which pioneered a new way of learning STEM for both K-12 and university students. I observed very early on (20 years ago) that when I conducted short, one-hour workshops for students in our VR lab, the students would not end the workshop sessions. They simply didn’t want to stop exploring and interacting with the virtual environments. They were very engaged in what they were doing. It was difficult getting them to leave, so we knew we were onto something special.”

Cecil said the program’s 3-D environments allow learning to become a natural process of discovery and exploration. 

“It provides an ‘immersive’ capability’ where a child can ‘enter’ an environment and explore science and engineering concepts in a very relaxed and intuitive manner,” he said. “The problem is most K-12 schools are still using board-based learning and now more recently PowerPoints. These have been proven to be not engaging to our students; while technology has changed our lives (from use of cellphones and apps), teaching methods sadly have not kept up with the times. We wanted to break away from the traditional way of teaching science and engineering concepts and explore a more cyber intensive teaching approach which emphasized experiential learning using 3D digital environments."

Similar virtual learning environments with haptic and 3D immersive interfaces have also been created for university students to learn engineering concepts. Through the National Science Foundation’s Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) and Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs, Cecil has encouraged underrepresented students to pursue graduate degrees in STEM. His university mentees have explored designing VR simulators for surgery, NASA's moon mission and other contexts, which has resulted in them publishing more than 80 peer-reviewed conference and journal papers as authors or co-authors.

“The Soaring Eagle program recognizes the significant underrepresentation of K-12 minority students including women, autistic students and those with physical disabilities in STEM,” he said. “Our program targets these students through grassroots organizations, including museums, as well as developing relationships with school teachers and organizations helping autistic children. For example, we are working with autism therapists and educational psychologists in designing special learning environments based on applied behavioral analysis. We also emphasize the contributions of minority and female STEM role models working in various engineering and science fields."

Cecil also has utilized VLEs in undergraduate and graduate settings where he has noticed dramatic results. He said there is more work to be done, but their results have been promising. 

“There is considerably more work to be done in slowly transforming the way children and university students learn,” he said. “VLEs don’t seek to replace teachers but focus on helping teachers help a diverse group of students.”

Cecil, who also has received OSU’s Outstanding Faculty Award, the Institute of Industrial Engineers’ Technical Innovation Award and the OK-LSAMP Outstanding Mentor award, said he’s looking forward to what comes next.

“During this COVID pandemic, we are working to provide remote access to web-based VR learning environments, where students can learn with the help of avatars and interactive environments using their mouse and keyboard,” he said. “We have been fortunate to explore using touch (haptic) interfaces that students can use from their home and learn as well. The full immersive learning where someone can wear headsets and interact through a cloud is something we are now tinkering with and refining.”

Cecil said his team aims to grow its network of learning partners nationally and globally, starting with museums in Oklahoma City and Houston. 

“We are constantly looking for new partners and collaborators,” he said. “We are confident that one day the traditional way of learning will shift to a more intuitive and engaging learning approach that enables students of all backgrounds and abilities to interact and learn at their own pace.”

Cecil is continuing to work with autistic students on a related educational initiative, as well. Autistic students, accompanied by one of their parents and following safety requirements such as social distancing and face masks have been coming to the lab one at a time. He is looking for more autistic students from grades 1-12 to participate in the project which involves immersive VR-based learning environments. Parents of interested students can email him at
MEDIA CONTACT: Mack Burke | Editorial Coordinator | | 405.744.5540

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