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The classes of the future are now

August 30, 2018

Ohio State is using virtual reality for a more immersive, expansive learning experience.

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Cardboard headset and smart-phone

Imagine that you can “see” microscopic organisms in a realistic, three-dimensional way. Or that you can manipulate and explore hard-to-grasp science or mathematics concepts, rotating curves or helixes so you can view them from all sides. Or that you can even be transported to a brand-new, simulated “world” where you can practice new skills and interact with lifelike avatars.

Sound far-fetched? All this and more is possible with virtual reality (VR), defined as a 3D, computer-generated environment that can be explored by an individual.

According to Maria Palazzi, “virtual reality is the ability to become fully immersed in an experience, at full scale. While most of the elements you’ll see exist only in the virtual world, you have the opportunity to interact with them. It’s a really unique learning experience.” Palazzi is director of Ohio State’s Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD), long known for its pioneering research in computer animation and virtual reality.

VR for the masses

ACCAD experts often use sophisticated investigative tools such as motion capture and high-end technical displays in their VR research. These are leading-edge lab-based technologies. Now, other units at Ohio State are also embracing the educational wonders of virtual reality, and bringing VR from the lab and into the classroom.

In autumn of 2015, Professor Chris Orban (physics) approached Dr. Chris Porter (physics) about incorporating smartphone-based stereoscopic VR into STEM instruction. The effort quickly grew to a multidiscipline collaboration that includes faculty from physics, engineering and mathematics.

This fall, Jonathan Brown a scientist in chemical and biomolecular engineering, will work with colleagues to institute the use of virtual reality in Deb Grzybowski’s undergraduate courses in visual and spatial thinking, concepts he says are important in engineering. “I thought virtual reality would be a great fit for this class, which in the past involved translating 2D pictures to 3D representations in your head,” he said. “Virtual reality can help enhance understanding. It lets us teach 3D phenomena in 3D.”

“For hundreds of years concepts were taught by drawing things on a flat, 2D chalkboard,” he said. “But now, we can actually show students what something looks like in 3D, avoiding potential misunderstandings.”

Researchers at Ohio State will use simple Google cardboard headsets and students’ smartphones for upcoming projects. “In the past, a lot of VR tools were expensive,” Brown said, “but if it’s on a smartphone, it’s something 99 percent of the students have in their pockets. They can pull up the app, put on a $5 cardboard headset and the whole class can be engaged in it.”

The project has grown to include students from many disciplines as well, including Irina Kuznetcova from educational psychology, and Nick Abbott from mechanical engineering. Ethan Andersen, a fourth-year engineering physics major with a focus on computer science, has been a driving force in the development of VR apps for the engineering courses. The video-game aficionado says using the modern software and computer-intensive graphics is “a dream come true for me.”

He says being at the forefront of this effort has been one of the highlights of his time at Ohio State. “It’s really cool. More than cool. Interactive VR will be so beneficial to students; they’ll be able to pick up on things better than in the past.

“One of a student’s biggest tasks is to learn the material,” he said. “If they can use a new tool to enhance that, then it’s a step in a good direction.”

Increasing student understanding

Ohio State’s STEAM Factory – a grassroots university network that facilitates creative and interdisciplinary collaborations -- helped fund early development of the VR application to be used in courses at the university; collaborators from math, physics and educational psychology were involved in implementing the new teaching tools.

Bart Snapp, assistant professor of mathematics, is using BuckeyeVR with his multivariable calculus students. Snapp has his students create their own virtual reality interactives.

“The students create something, such as a geometric construction or 3D surfaces and curves,” he explained. “As they dig in, they learn quite a bit of math. Plus, they can view their creation from different angles, rotate it and see it in 3D with the Google headset.”

Virtual reality may be an effective method of teaching some heavily three-dimensional topics, and this new tool is on the cusp of rapid expansion, Porter explained.

“VR is about to play a much larger role in education. I do think it will be tremendously important. Not just for letting students learn the same things in a better way, but by letting us ask new questions about 3D phenomena that we couldn’t with a 2D drawing,” he said. “Most interesting of all is what this will open up for us in our classrooms.”