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Creative Director Mike Cuales Selected for 2017 Provost’s Award of Excellence

Dr. Duane Larick, MIke Cuales and Dr. Donna Petherbridge
Pictured left to right: Dr. Duane Larick, Senior Vice Provost for Academic Strategy and Resource Management; 2017 EHRA Provost's Unit Award of Excellence Recipient Mike Cuales, creative director at DELTA; and Dr. Donna Petherbridge, Associate Vice Provost for Instructional Technology Support and Development, who nominated Mike for the award. Photo: Marc Hall

Mike Cuales, Creative Director, New Media Development, was nominated as DELTA’s EHRA Award of Excellence recipient. Cuales, along with recipients from other units reporting to the Provost, were recognized in a ceremony held in Talley Student Union on Monday, April 24.

Nominated in the efficiency and innovation category, Mike received the Provost Unit Award for Excellence.

The Provost Unit selects EHRA and SHRA recipients to be recognized at the annual ceremony. In addition to a certificate for being nominated, recipients of the Provost Award for Excellence receive a plaque, eight hours of paid time off and a check for $250.

After receiving the Provost’s Unit EHRA Award of Excellence, Cuales will move to the university-level award competition in June, where five individuals will receive special distinction as recipients of the NC State University Awards. The NC State University Awards for Excellence are the highest honor awarded to non-faculty employees.

image of DELTA colleagues with Mike at awards ceremony
Several DELTA colleagues were present at the awards presentation Monday, April 24 at Talley Student Union. Photo: Marc Hall

In her nomination submission, Associate Vice Provost for Instructional Technology Support and Development Donna Petherbridge wrote, “Mike is an ideal recipient of the NC State University Awards for Excellence in recognition of his relentless pursuit of innovative excellence. He is a key driver of innovative thinking and doing on NC State’s campus, resulting in amazing things happening in teaching and learning, and he is a connector of ideas and people that inspires those who work with him both in the university and beyond. Where some might see an obstacle — Mike sees a path for innovation; where some see chaos — Mike sees possibilities, and when some are fearful of failure — Mike is fearless. He is the kind of person every organization pursuing excellence needs — that person who thinks outside of the proverbial box others feel safe in; the one unafraid to throw spaghetti on the wall to see what sticks; the one who sees an opportunity where others may not. Mike is the person who says, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ Even if we don’t know in the moment how we are going to make something happen, he challenges us every day to move forward and figure it out.”

Driving Educational Innovation

Petherbridge pointed out several innovative instruction projects influenced by Cuales’ novel solutions for teaching and learning challenges. This is nothing new, Cuales has worked with faculty during his 15+ years at NC State.

While DELTA is known for inventive work, Cuales leads the charge to explore, question and create something new with each course in support of our student success mission. He has been a driver for DELTA’s recent groundbreaking work exploring the use of Virtual Reality and 360º video in an educational context. In 2015, Cuales was recognized as a co-nominee for the Gertrude Cox Award for Innovative Teaching with Technology for his creative direction on the Howling Cow Case Study, which takes a “reality TV” approach to learning about Food Safety.  

Mike Cuales holding the 360º camera rig, kneeling in the muddy road break, waiting for the fire to race past him, while the rest of the team (the Burn Boss and the eFIRE team) stood back along the road watching, anxiously waiting—with the Burn Boss’ dog barking as if to say, “Mike, move it! Move it NOW!”

In another project, eFIRE, Cuales’ approach led to an exploration of different video techniques for capturing in-the-field learning (See Case Studies for 360º videos). Working with College of Natural Resources, the DELTA team literally stood inside fields of fire, recording prescribed burns with experts on site in the Sandhills. eFIRE was one of DELTA’s earliest explorations into 360º video as an online field trip experience. Concurrently, Google Cardboard came onto the market. While eFIRE was originally designed for the web, the immediate embrace of Google Cardboard at his urging extended the videos into an immersive (and cost-effective) experience.  

First-person point of view used in VR environment for Nutrition 420 class.
The first-person point of view as seen in VR environment used to train teachers in Nutrition 420.

DELTA’s work on NTR 420 Community Nutrition, which uses 360º video with varying points of view (POV) for an incredibly immersive experience. Working with instructor Natalie Cooke, the DELTA team created a series of 360º videos that immerse the viewer in the experience of being the instructor (first person POV), a fellow team-teacher (second person POV), or an observer (third person POV). Each scenario has multiple video conflict resolutions. Cuales’ leadership for the immersive video captured in this project was simply phenomenal. In Spring 2017, a DELTA colleague observed students after watching scenarios via the 360-Gear VR headset, and one student literally shouted out in class, “This is EIGHT dimensions! THIS is the future of education!” This is the EXACTLY the type of reaction DELTA wants; we want students so excited about their learning experience that they are moved to shout about it. 

Accolades on Innovation

Faculty members that have worked with Cuales note the impact of his innovative thinking on their teaching; for example:

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mike on several projects over the last 10 years.  Without question Mike is the most innovative and creative thinking person I’ve collaborated with in my career. No idea seems too big or too different for Mike. His knowledge and passion about innovation in teaching and learning is infectious and pushes me to think more creatively about my own approach to teaching and how to improve the learning environment for my students.”  – Dr. Michael Kanters, Professor, Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management

I cannot think of a better person than Mike Cuales to receive the NC State University Award for Excellence . . . I can still remember when we first met. I was working on development of a new online course . . . and it was obvious to me then, and from that point on, that his capabilities were unique, innovative and a potentially significant positive influence on development of educational technology materials so vital to our modern technology consuming society. . . . His work with DELTA represents the best integration of educational technology, based on solid scientific principles, computer technology and deliverables better than I have ever seen. I personally do not know how he does what he does. He is a unique resource on our campus.”  – Dr. Joseph Roise, Professor of Forestry and Operations Research

“Mike’s creativity, expertise, and excitement for learning is refreshing and exactly what makes working with DELTA such a pleasure. Mike volunteered to film footage of a grocery store tour at Grand Asia Market. This one-day filming sparked my imagination for how this technology could be used in the classroom. I have seen first-hand his creativity, problem-solving, and technological expertise. We were able to create a series of knife skills videos and conflict management videos to be used for training nutrition educators. Each of these videos was filmed with Mike’s expertise, getting the point-of-view and surround sound just right. The NC State community is lucky to have Mike, for he keeps us not only current in technology — but truly at the cutting edge of what’s next. As a faculty member, I am grateful not only for his expertise but for his giving nature and servant-minded approach to work.”  Dr. Natalie Cooke, Teaching Assistant Professor, Undergraduate Nutrition Program

Mike Cuales aligns helmet VR rig on a model for a first-person point-of-view during production.
Mike Cuales aligns helmet VR rig on a model for a first-person point-of-view during production.

At NC State, Cuales was one of the key partners in creating the Virtual Reality Interest Group, which currently boasts nearly 60 members. Partnering with another DELTA staff member and colleagues at NCSU Libraries, Cuales founded this ad-hoc group with the mission of engaging the campus with a cross-disciplinary conversation about how Virtual Reality can be leveraged for educational experiences; for example, a recent topic held at the Friday Center revolved around a pilot of augmented reality for K-12 education, as well as information sharing on how we can produce 360º VR video and successfully integrate that experience into both online and face-to-face instruction.

In addition to reaching out across campus, Cuales develops industry partnerships. VR has emerged from a gaming background, and knowing how educational institutions can learn from the lessons of industry, he has purposefully cultivated relationships with companies such as EPIC Games, and he is very active in the RTP Virtual Reality Meetup group. He has also given many presentations at higher education conferences about VR; most recently with two of his colleagues at South by Southwest for the second year in a row (75 people, room capacity, attended this presentation; numerous people have followed up with him and other DELTA colleagues indicating that we are “leading the way” in educational VR!). He’s also presented at HOW Design Ignite, RTP 180, Liberact, Hopscotch and UNC CAUSE.

Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators

“Mike is a connector — of people, ideas, and opportunities. In 2015, CIO Marc Hoit reached out to DELTA, indicating that an education working group was being established from members of each of the UNC institutions and AT&T to generate institutional projects that could take advantage of their new fiber networks – could we appoint someone to this group? Easy, we picked Mr. Let’s see what happens Mike! Mike has been participating in the NCNGN Economic Workforce Development initiative for over a year now. From this group, Mike’s virtual reality-themed proposal to outfit community centers with high-end VR gear so that diverse and underprivileged populations could have access to STEM content from the UNC institutions delivered by the VR technology was selected out of 10+ proposals submitted by both partnering institutions and municipalities. As a result of Mike’s innovative thinking, all students in North Carolina could eventually have an opportunity to engage in STEM-based curriculum, mentoring and career development via an immersive VR experience in their local community centers; as the NCNGN Board has identified a Carrboro Community Center as the pilot site for implementation, with plans to expand across the state,” says Petherbridge in the nomination.

I have been working with Mike on better ways to utilize virtual reality to educate STEM students in the Orange County school system.  Not only has he provided top notch technical knowledge and experience but a great, can-do attitude and willingness to go the extra mile to see the program succeed.  Without his assistance, I am not sure we would have the solution we have today or the confidence I have that the program will be successful into the future,” Craig Walton, AT&T

VR booth
Mike Cuales explains VR to guests near DELTA’s booth at EI’s Entrepalooza. Photo: Becky Kirkland

Cuales is passionate about STEM mentoring and volunteers much of his time. He helped the nonprofit US2020 in RTP by producing a documentary on what it is like to be a STEM mentor, leveraging his video/VR expertise. He is a regular instructor at Duke University’s Talent Identification Program (TIP), teaching kids in this program how to be VR content producers. He volunteers at both the N.C. Museums of Art and Natural Sciences, bringing his VR expertise to the public via these organizations.

“Mike is a true catalyst of innovation; identifying that spark that ignites the fire. He is our spark — and for his many achievements over the years, for his demonstrable impact on educational innovation at NC State and beyond, for the mark he is leaving for future dreamers through his work with the community, and for the conversations he is sparking in industry and higher educational venues with his entrepreneurial thinking — he is most deserving of this award,” says Petherbridge.