UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Rest is not commonly associated with the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, also known as THON. Dancers are on their feet for 46 consecutive hours. Committees and volunteers work for a year to organize the event, collect donations, and ultimately execute the event. Thousands of supporters, who are gently encouraged to not sit down, fill the Bryce Jordan Center and sustain the dancers’ spirits. In the end, the energy poured into the event raises millions of dollars annually for Four Diamond families in support of their battles against pediatric cancer.
Throughout THON weekend Four Diamond families travel to University Park to take part in the festivities and share the energetic atmosphere. Unlike the dancers, the kids fighting childhood cancer, their parents, and other guests occasionally need to step away from the BJC and catch their collective breath. This is where THON’s Family Relations Committee steps up with strategically planned experiences that provide a respite from all the hustle and bustle. This year, a brand-new event at the HUB-Robeson Center’s Break Zone aimed at helping a special group of THON teen participants gave Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) a chance to contribute to THON for the first time.
At the Teen Adventure, dozens of kids played pool, ping-pong, and video games. The sunshine filled the Break Zone on a Saturday afternoon as Colin Murtha, teen and adult coordinator on the Family Relations Committee, reflected on the ideas that brought this supportive event to life.
“A lot of THON is geared towards younger kids – that’s part of what makes it so special – and this year we’re really making strides to provide all ages, from teenage years through adulthood, with emotional support,” Murtha said.
The scope of that support is larger than just the Teen Adventure. Murtha helped create the THON Engagement and Empowerment Network (TEENetwork) whose efforts include teen-focused programming during the THON Family Carnival and “Teen Nights” that take place four times per year. But THON weekend is the big showcase, and Murtha was quick to recognize everyone who had a hand in making the Teen Adventure possible.
“It’s a lot of coordination and planning to bring together 40 teens and their guests, members of the football team, and groups that provided programming. It’s great to see all the effort pay off,” he said.
TLT, whose day-to-day efforts center around collaborating with faculty and students across the University to discover and advance technology that supports engaged learning, was one of those groups. With TLT in attendance, the Teen Adventure kids enjoyed some hands-on experience with augmented reality and other educational gaming technology. It a chance to work with THON that the staff jumped at according to learning experiences designer Zach Lonsinger.
“This was a great opportunity to support THON and also advocate for emerging technology. A lot of kids dream about being a Jedi, but not many get to experience an actual lightsaber battle with Darth Vader. Thanks to the technology that’s been developed, this is possible,” he said.
The lightsaber battles that Lonsinger referred to were made possible by a mobile phone, an augmented reality headset that projects holograms into the player’s vision, and a beacon and game controller that respond to the player’s movements. Most of the teens in attendance that afternoon hadn’t experienced augmented reality previously, but they were eager to try it out and adapted to it quickly. One of the “Jedis” in training, Josiah Garcia, didn’t quite get the ending he expected from his first try at the game.
“The augmented reality was a lot of fun, but I didn’t like getting ambushed by the Storm Troopers at the end. They just ganged up on me!” he said, laughing.
While gaming is often people’s first exposure to augmented or virtual reality, it can open their eyes to other ways the tech can be applied, such as in an educational setting.
“As a society, we are just beginning to understand what is possible with immersive technologies. It’s not that far off from anyone being able to experience what a THON dancer sees from the floor,” said Lonsinger. “Someone from across the world could put on a headset and experience the powerful moments of THON as if they were on the floor.”
Ethan Munoz was another teen adventurer who spent time with the augmented reality game, and the Nintendo Labo technology that showcases principles of engineering, physics, and basic programming. As a middle school student himself, the educational potential of the technology wasn’t lost on him.
“The Labo could help kids who need to work on motor skills, and augmented reality could be used to improve hand-eye coordination,” Munoz said.
Education technology is something close to Murtha’s heart as he is studying education policy. He thinks that aside from giving the kids a chance to play and relax during a busy THON weekend, the immersive technology could have a meaningful impact on their future as students.
“Besides the gaming aspect, the technology presents learning opportunities where you can put yourself into an entirely different environment and learn about it with almost hands-on interaction,” Murtha said. “It has the potential to give teenage students a tangible learning experience which is something that speaks to them as people who like to be engaged.”
Lonsinger echoed Murtha’s sentiment.
“Kids are growing up with access to mobile and immersive technology. Just like I grew up with the internet and expected it in my classrooms, students now are going to expect immersive technologies to be a part of their learning experience,” he said. “As with any technology, immersive tech should be viewed and used as a tool or a complement to learning.”
Once the Teen Adventure wound down and the HUB’s Break Zone cleared out, the kids, their guests, and family members made it back to the BJC to rejoin THON’s festivities. And while he performed admirably in augmented reality, Josiah Garcia saved his best performance for the THON stage as showcased his dance skills in Saturday evening’s talent show. Ultimately, everyone who took part in the weekend came away from the experience touched by THON’s magic.
“THON has impacted me completely; it’s how I’ve met some of my best friends,” said Murtha. “Really, though, it’s such a humbling experience to work with the families and be a part of their lives."
Lonsinger added, “THON is so much more than a 46-hour dance marathon. It transcends higher education and goes beyond just getting a degree. It’s about making an impact on the world and changing the way you view the world. When you are invested in something that’s bigger than yourself, it changes you in a meaningful way.”