The VR game is a five to seven minute rhythm action experience in a surreal environment. The player is cast as a woman of color who is tasked with freeing a mountainous figure lodged in earth. The core mechanic is timing when to reach out with an open hand and when to punch with a closed fist. Our design goal was to use an abstract context to teach players to alternate between self defense and reaching out for support in order to thrive.
The Palimpsest Program was a high school program designed to signal belonging to all women of color and nonbinary individuals to study computer science in college. We taught three-hour sessions after school on Wednesdays at a South Central Los Angeles high school for twelve weeks. Our classroom was comprised of sixteen students ranging from 9th to 12th grades, although most of our students were in 10th grade.
Our goal was to design a flexible curriculum that could be tailored to the students.
We prepared lectures, exercises, labs, and individual creative projects for the following concepts: 3D Space, Vector Math, Code Basics, Computer Hardware, Methods, Operations, and Programming Languages. Click the link above to download our full curriculum, including vocabulary and overview.
To nurture resilience in a male-dominated field, we also taught mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness from the teachings of Marsha Linehan.
The researchers of "Why Are Some STEM Fields More Gender Balanced Than Others?" state: "To close gender gaps in participation in computer science, engineering, and physics, cultures of these fields should signal equally to women and men that they belong and can achieve success in them" (Cheryan). Their study relied on data that unfortunately defined gender as a binary of men and women. We do not subscribe to binary thinking, but this data did inform Allison and my decision to focus on all women of color and nonbinary individuals of color in high school. Our mission was for computer science to signal belonging to this group in a project called Palimpsest.
The word "palimpsest" originates from the Greek roots palin 'again' + psestos 'rubbed smooth.' The word describes an object that contains traces of prior versions that have been effaced to make room for new versions. It is often applied to writing materials such as pieces of parchment or stone, but could also be applied to new architecture built atop the old, or layers of society. My favorite definition of palimpsest is by Daily Beast editor Jill Bialosky, who writes that, "in a figurative way, palimpsest refers to an object or place that reflects its own history" (Bialosky 2013).
To me, "palimpsest" held a number of meanings depending on the context. Within the context of identity, palimpsest referred to the transformational process through which we all decide to make room for new drafts of self. This view of palimpsest filled me with calm in the sense that it acknowledged the limits of our time, access, resources, and mental capacities; we cannot be all things. Pursuing a dream meant tough choices and stark compromises. Letting go of prior versions of self was a highly intimate, personal process, and one I would have to revisit repeatedly in order to continue pursuing a place for myself in the field of engineering.
I view code as Greek philosopher Heraclitus' river, which one cannot dip one's foot into the same place twice. Code is constantly evolving in an intensely collaborative way over the internet. Before coming up against the firm (and necessary) safeguards against cheating in university computer science courses, I wanted our high school students to freely borrow, break, remix, and edit source code. We attempted to emulate this by having our students remix our VR game's code as part of their curriculum. The changing source code is another form of palimpsest.
The goal of our MFA thesis project Palimpsest was to create an educational intervention, using a high school class and a VR game, that would allow all women of color and nonbinary people of color to gain or reclaim access to early positive experiences with computer science. Our VR game stars a woman of color who uses technology to transcend challenges. In our high school engineering class, students remix our game's code and assets to create their own pieces of expression. Through this constant edition process, we, the participants and creators, collectively write ourselves into the field of computer science, and thereby signal our own belonging and potential for success to each other.