For Sam Williamson ('12 M.A.), the joy of creativity is more about the process than the product. As associate director of UNT's High School Career Connect and co-founder of Kinful, a virtual reality curriculum for social-emotional learning, Williamson is helping lead UNT's charge toward a more caring, creative and innovative future.
After studying art and education at the University of Texas, Williamson traveled to West Africa with the Peace Corps, where he helped build a mentoring program for local students.
"The Peace Corps was the first time I truly understood that I couldn't do everything myself," Williamson says. "If I didn't focus on replacing myself in all capacities, it probably wouldn't last after I left."
When he returned to the U.S. in 2009, Williamson settled in his hometown of Denton while contemplating his next move. His Denton roots go deep: His father, Tim Williamson ('85 M.S.), studied industrial technology, and his mother, Celia Williamson, worked for UNT for more than 24 years before retiring as vice provost for educational innovation. His grandfather Merril Delwin Williamson taught industrial design and his great-grandfather Elmer began studying at UNT in 1912, a century before Sam would cross the stage with one of UNT's first master's degrees in innovation studies.
"The professors took a different approach to research," he says. "They taught us how to search for voids, which is where innovation lives."
As part of his graduate research on creating more relevant and engaging curriculum, Williamson reached out to Dallas educational nonprofit Big Thought. The group connected him with local middle schools and, upon graduation, offered him a position as an instructional specialist.
Inspired by Big Thought's vision and the lessons he learned in grad school, Williamson began to focus on social and emotional intelligence.
"Studies show that kids today have fewer friends and feel more isolated," he says. "Bullying is still a serious issue, not just for the victims, but for the kids who are acting out as well. A lot of teachers don't feel like they have the resources to address it."
That's where Kinful comes in. Kinful is a turnkey learning system. Using virtual reality headsets and kid-friendly software, students can create their own immersive 360-degree videos to share with peers in their classroom and all over the world.
Kinful exercises combine a virtual reality experience -- such as a kid being left out of a basketball game -- with an in-person activity like a game of spoons. The teacher then uses these shared experiences to guide group discussions that emphasize empathy and self-reflection.
"We're using a coded conversation to help kids start unpacking their own emotions and impulses," he says. "We ask things like, 'Did the competition raise your stress level, or did it raise your fun level? Do you wish you could play spoons alone, or with more people at the table?' These choices tell us how a kid operates and approaches a problem."
In July 2016, Williamson returned to UNT as the community and service learning coordinator of High School Career Connect, a grant-funded peer mentoring program that partners with Denton County schools to provide college and career guidance to middle and high school students.
"We're trying to teach kids that failure is an integral part of the creative process," he says. "If you haven't failed at least once, you haven't left your comfort zone."