Conrad Tucker with arms extended demonstrating on a screen virtual reality

Conrad Tucker demonstrating virtual reality using Oculus Rift to students.

As virtual reality (VR) technology improves, there are pioneers in the higher education world exploring VR’s possibilities. One of these explorers is Conrad Tucker, assistant professor of engineering design and industrial engineering and an affiliate faculty member of computer science and engineering at Penn State, who is looking to harness the power of digital/human interactions in VR as a way to enhance teaching.

Tucker views VR as the best way to enable students in remote locations to collaborate and learn together. “I really see this as expanding Penn State’s reach beyond physical spaces, which would enable students who can’t physically be here, such as disabled people or military personnel stationed overseas, to have an interactive educational experience with other students,” Tucker said. “VR and wearable technology are part of the next logical evolution of digital/human interactions. As the world shifts to more low cost ubiquitous methods of interacting, these technologies will become a big part of education. For example, in my field, engineering, there’s been a trend towards digital means of interaction.”

Student with arms raised and motion mirrored on computer display

A Penn State engineering student practicing his virtual reality skills using Oculus Rift.

Tucker said one of his goals is creating a widely used digital learning environment that’s fully interactive and has the physics rendering needed for engineering, but he envisions virtual reality being used across all subjects. Therefore, he wants to pull together researchers from beyond engineering. For example, he has discussed potential collaborations with Ann Clements, associate professor of music education in the School of Music at Penn State. “I would like to expand to arts and humanities to find common ground with other faculty and researchers who see the potential for immersive virtual reality in pedagogy, both in the classroom and in online learning,” he said. “I am excited about these kinds of projects. It allows engineering and music faculty to collaborate. Arts and engineering, it turns out, have a lot of commonalities.”

What kind of devices would students use to enter this collaborative research world? Tucker said he has been researching controller-based systems such as the X-Box and more “traditional” virtual reality technology such as Oculus Rift.

No matter what the technology, Tucker envisions uses for virtual reality that some may think is science fiction, but he sees as a part of the future of education. “Imagine an online student has a virtual lab that they’re working on in their dorm or home,” he said. “There is an instructor right there in virtual lab with them, able to observe what they’re doing and provide real time feedback, including suggesting corrective measures if the student needs it.”

“Often, an online course, such as a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), is a passive experience where the student is just consuming course materials like lectures,” Tucker said. “Virtual reality can enable one to create a digital learning environment that’s fully interactive. I want to build an environment that enables students in different physical areas to collaboratively work together on a variety of different engineering processes.”

Another benefit to a virtual reality environment is the fact that students can work in a relatively safe space. “In a virtual world, students can learn without some of the negative consequences, cost or injury,” Tucker said. “A thousand-dollar piece of equipment in a lab breaking due to student error in the real world is less stressful than a student making an error and learning from it without the costs associated with that mistake.”

Throughout the project, Tucker said he keeps in mind the broader impact of this work, which he sees as making Penn State a leader in educational virtual reality research and development. “I want to get to the point that when you think of wearable tech and immersive VR, Penn State comes to mind,” he said. “That’s the vision, because I think we have a lot of great resources and talent that can make that happen.”

virtual reality hand manipulating an object with a chart showing Vector Field HUD

Engineering concepts being taught via virtual reality.

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One Response to Exploring the possibilities of teaching engineering, and more, in a virtual world

  1. Bryan Doner says:

    Thanks for posting this! Good luck on this project, it would be a big contribution to the engineering world if you succeed on this.

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