A man in an industrial setting looks through a virtual-reality headset.

VR simulations help students see 'the big picture'

Researchers in the School of Engineering are developing immersive virtual-reality environments to better teach industrial engineering systems.

Industrial engineering students often use simulation kits – boxes full of Lego blocks – to learn Toyota’s production system. They build Lego cars, sometimes using robots and programmable logic controllers to speed the process.

Researchers at the Data-Driven Decisions (3D) lab at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, and the Design Analysis Technology Advancement (D.A.T.A.) lab at University Park will soon test a different technique. They are developing a virtual reality simulation that will place students in an interactive and immersive manufacturing environment where they can model and manipulate production systems. The VR environment, which will include concepts that are taught in a variety of courses, will move Penn State’s industrial engineering program toward a truly integrated curriculum, with a continuing theme, or story, that will reinforce key concepts as students progress through the program.

The National Science Foundation is supporting the project with a three-year grant of nearly $300,000.

“Mechanical engineering students often have physical projects that they can take from one class to another. That allows them to see many engineering concepts in the same object as they advance through the curriculum,” said Omar Ashour, assistant professor of industrial engineering at Penn State Behrend. “We can’t do that in industrial engineering. We can’t bring an entire manufacturing system into a classroom.”

Ashour studied the use of VR to teach queuing theory in 2017. He used a simulation of a fast-food restaurant system. As students manipulated the virtual environment, adding cashiers, increasing demand and making other changes to the workspace, Ashour and his fellow researchers noticed that students were more engaged when working within the VR environment. Female students, in particular, learned and remembered more when VR was used in place of a traditional lecture.

“There is a spatial component of observation in VR. The brain responds differently when you see a three-dimensional representation of an object,” said Conrad Tucker, associate professor of engineering design and industrial and manufacturing engineering. He is director of the D.A.T.A. lab at University Park.

Ashour and Tucker will oversee the development of the new VR module, which will be built using the Unity 3D game engine. Unity boasts a large user community, with members who actively share components or even full-room simulations.

“The goal is not to build a novelty item, but to develop a teaching module that can be easily adapted, like a PowerPoint platform, with a series of pull-down menus that someone with limited coding skills can select from while creating a custom immersive experience,” Tucker said.

The VR module will be tested at Penn State Behrend as part of a broader study of how fundamental engineering concepts are reinforced across the curriculum. Multiple faculty members in the industrial engineering program will use it, Ashour said.

“We want students to see the same theme, or story, over and over again, and in different classes, but to each time see it from a new perspective,” he said. “That will help students see the ‘big picture” of how the concepts taught in the industrial engineering curriculum fit together.”

Ashour and Tucker call their approach “Connected Learning and Integrated Course Knowledge,” or CLICK. In addition to assessing students’ knowledge and retention of key industrial engineering concepts, they will study the effectiveness of the VR environment across a variety of learning styles. They hope eventually to expand it to different student populations, including those who study online, at Penn State World Campus.

“We have a world-class online learning platform, and we have VR options where students can slide their phone into a $20 headset and experience interactivity in a virtual setting,” Tucker said. “If it’s done well, that can be useful both to in-class students and those who are distance-based. It can change the idea that content has to be delivered in a classroom in real time. And that has the potential to transform our concept of higher education and how we learn.”