At engineering schools throughout the world, professors are turning to virtual reality technology in the classroom.
The technology provides 3-D visuals that help engineering students improve their designs, alerting them to flaws before the building process starts.
Engineering schools are researching technologies that could transform the way people communicate and interact by – for instance – allowing people to visit one another in a virtual space if they can't meet in person. Engineering schools are also exploring medical applications of virtual reality that could save lives, such as 3-D X-rays that allow doctors to peer inside the bodies of patients.
Some engineering schools are taking virtual reality lessons a step further and challenging students to develop new virtual reality programs.
For instance, students at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California created a virtual reality program that aids memorization by using imagery to represent concepts and words that need to be remembered.
Opportunities to harness the power of virtual reality are valuable to engineering graduate schools, professors and students say, because the technology can serve as a learning aid and a foundation for innovation. Here are three benefits of attending an engineering school that has integrated virtual reality into its curriculum.
1. Clear 3-D diagrams: Virtual reality allows engineering schools to provide students with 3-D visualizations of phenomena that are invisible to the naked eye, such as electromagnetic fields, and it can also be used to produce compelling 3-D building models, professors say.
At the College of Engineering at University of Michigan—Ann Arbor, structural engineering students work in a “virtual reality cave” that constructs 3-D building models so they gain insight into the difference between stable structures and feeble ones. London South Bank University offers a virtual reality auditorium that allows students to create visualizations of their designs.
"In the past, the ability of educators to relate complex 3-D spatial arrangements was limited to 2-D drawings or physical models," Sherif El-Tawil, associate chair of Michigan's civil and environmental engineering department, said in email. "Depicting 3-D figures in 2-D space is clearly not a good way for transmitting a complex 3-D message."
Alessio Corso, a senior lecturer at the School of Engineering at London South Bank, says virtual reality complements traditional teaching methods in engineering classes.
"In terms of lessons, virtual reality can help us to transport engineering students to large scale facilities such as submarines, aircraft, ships and off-shore oil rigs, where the students can interact and collaborate in experiencing, assembling and disassembling entities," Corso said in an email. "On a micro-scale, we can use the technology to demonstrate the internal structure of different metals, polymers, composites and natural fibres in an incredibly experiential way."
2. Creative opportunities: Some engineering students say that training in virtual reality allows them to envision new applications of the technology.
Jyotsna Kadimi, an electrical engineering student at USC and president of the student-run Virtual Reality Southern California organization, says that a knowledge of virtual reality technology helps her imagine ways of improving the technology that exists and spurs thoughts of possible inventions. It is in the interest of every engineer to understand cutting-edge technologies, she says, so they can build upon recent discoveries.
She says when new hardware or software is released, it provides an opportunity for engineers to discover applications for these tools that their inventors never contemplated, and that the best solutions generally come from those who understand all the tools at their disposal.
Virtual reality is one of the most promising new tools for engineers, and that it has useful applications in entertainment, journalism and medicine, Kadimi says.
3. Marketability: A specialization in virtual reality could help engineering students land a job after graduation, professors say, because technology companies, such as Google and Facebook, are focusing on virtual reality innovation.
"It's a very good time for young students in engineering school to work in virtual reality," says Adrian David Cheok, founder and director of the Imagineering Institute in Malaysia and a professor of pervasive computing at City University of London.
"Finally, after 50 years, virtual reality is now entering the marketplace in a very big way," says Cheok, "and it's becoming relatively cheap."
Cheok says that as the cost of virtual reality technology goes down, its popularity will increase, and that engineers who understand virtual reality will have a leg up on their less knowledgeable peers.
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