ANDOVER — While wind and rain battered against the windows of the Cormier Youth Center last week, students with the Andover High School Global Pathways program were transported to a park in Mexico City.
The students entered a "portal" — an inflatable space equipped with video and audio hookups — set up in the youth center, where they could talk with people connected through various networks all over the world.
The Andover Coalition for Education, or ACE, has funded the portal through Shared Studios, an organization that connects people internationally through their inflatable spaces.
On Friday, students from the high school's Global Pathways program held a summit focused on examining the future of food and experimented with using the portal to discuss their ideas with people in Mexico City.
"We want this to be used as an incredible tool," said Steve Chinosi, Andover Public Schools director of strategic innovation.
Chinosi said he immediately thought of one student who wants to write a play on the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. The portal could enable her to speak with people who experienced that first hand, said Chinosi, giving her an incredible opportunity while also teaching her valuable primary source research skills.
The portal will spend two months at the high school, then make its way around the neighborhood elementary schools, and be at Old Town Hall over the summer.
"It'll open it up to the community in a radical way," said Chinosi.
The portals are increasingly being used for curriculum enhancement, but the idea started as a public art installation.
There are dozens of Shared Studios portals around the globe, from Brooklyn to Gaza City in the Palestinian territories. The first network between portals opened in 2014, in art spaces in Manhattan and Tehran, as a two-week exhibit.
Since that first connection, the art and technology collective has expanded to include about 60 curators — those who coordinate portals across the world.
Shared Studios also creates portals that can be opened and connected with jumbotrons to engage thousands of people at once, portal video walls that connect people on sidewalks, and a mobile portal bus.
"It's important for us to be a bit of a public utility," said founder and creative director Amar Bakshi, touching on his vision for Shared Studios to connect people of different cultures, enabling them to create meaning with people they would otherwise not have the opportunity to meet.
How does it feel to have a completely natural, almost mundane conversation with a curious stranger?
"We use the word giddy a lot," said Bakshi.
Aum Trivedi, 18, walked out of the portal, eyes wide.
"It was surreal," he said, noting how immersive the portal felt, compared to a video chat program like Skype. "In that room, there's a whole other element, there's body language."
Trivedi said he even connected with a few of the people he spoke with through the portal on the social networking app Instagram.
"I have international friends now," he said.
Boston Emmanuel, 17, a junior at Andover High School, said the portal made the world feel more connected.
"I think we lost vision that we're all just the same person," she said. "With Skype, you talk with your friends. With this, you make new friends."