AR/VR gif

Across Lehigh, efforts are underway to make technology such as virtual reality and augmented reality more accessible to professors and their students. Illustration: Sol Cotti.

‘XR Learning’ Takes Lehigh Students Beyond the Classroom

More faculty are supplementing their lesson plans with “extended reality,” or XR learning, which includes virtual and augmented reality.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Horns blared as cars and motorcycles angled their way along a busy street lined with vendors at a large outdoor market in Sierra Leone.

“Alright, we are now at the clock tower in central Makeni, and we are about to go into the busy marketplace,” Khanjan Mehta, vice provost for Creative Inquiry and director of the Mountaintop Initiative, said, shouting over the sound of traffic and distant music.

Down a side street on this hot January afternoon, there was barely room to move. People squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder, women balanced baskets on their heads brimming with fruits and vegetables, and vendors under colorful umbrellas called out vying for attention.

 

 

Mehta had expected to bring a group of Lehigh Global Social Impact Fellowship students with him to this West African country, but the COVID-19 Omicron variant put a stop to that. Luckily, Mehta said, he was able to bring the experience back to the classroom, thanks to a GoPro 360-degree camera and a virtual reality headset.

In addition to the market, he shot footage of the World Hope International offices, the organization Lehigh partners with when traveling to Sierra Leone. He also shot video of the hotel where students will stay when they travel for fieldwork in August and locations they will visit and collaborate with, such as health clinics, a school, a restaurant and some of the scenery.

Khanjan Mehta

Khanjan Mehta.

A big fan of Anthony Bourdain, the late chef and travel documentarian, Mehta said he channeled Bourdain’s energy while filming the scenes and explaining to students what they were seeing.

Mehta is among the many Lehigh educators embracing the learning power of “extended reality,” or “XR,” a term that includes technology such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). He plans to make similar videos in Kazakhstan and the Philippines this summer.

The footage won’t take the place of actual travel, Mehta said, but it will help prepare students and give them confidence and cognitive flexibility going into a new situation. “They cannot smell it, they cannot feel it, but they can look around and really be immersed in the sounds, in the views of these places, and it increases their confidence level,” he said.

They cannot smell it, they cannot feel it, but they can look around and really be immersed in the sounds, in the views of these places, and it increases their confidence level.

Khanjan Mehta

Knowing what to expect before they travel to a new location helps students be prepared to ask better questions and identify issues they may not have considered as they work on their projects on campus, Mehta explained. For example, students designing a novel diagnostic device have to consider the clinical setting and the climate in which it will be used and how it could be affected by environmental factors like sunlight and heat.

“I want them to ask better questions now in the design stage before they begin testing with their in-country partners,” he said. 

Across campus, efforts are underway to make XR technology more accessible to professors and their students. In addition to Mehta’s immersive travel videos, the Office of Creative Inquiry has been funding virtual reality projects through its Mountaintop Summer Experience program, including a virtual tour of the Lehigh River Watershed, and a virtual reality training tool to improve interracial interactions and aid in diversifying the culture of those in the STEM field. 

Additionally, the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning (CITL) plans to create a new student-centered XR Lab to officially launch in the Spring 2023 semester in the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library Computing Center. It will become the primary location for students with an interest in doing hands-on development work either independently or collaboratively. Plans for the new space are ramping up again after being delayed by the pandemic.

William Gaudelli

William Gaudelli.

Also, William Gaudelli, dean of the College of Education and the new vice provost for innovation in education, has been meeting with faculty to discuss redesigning the curriculum, including expanding immersive student experiences such as XR. Lehigh offers opportunities for its students outside of traditional lecture halls, with experiences such as internships or study-abroad programs. XR learning is another way to expand that experiential learning, Gaudelli explained.

“Experiential learning is a hallmark of what a Lehigh education is known for,” he said.

During an Education Innovation Summit on campus earlier this year, Lehigh administrators discussed how educators can incorporate more technology into their courses and the support that might require.

Some of the suggestions included granting sabbaticals for faculty to work on XR projects, setting up more internal funding to support such projects and creating a system that recognizes and rewards successful innovation in education.

“I recognize that there’s already an ecosystem of innovation in education on campus, and as much as possible, this is about plugging into that and generating new synergies where they can happen and new directions for this work to happen,” Gaudelli said.

The proposed curriculum redesign outlines seven core principles to follow, including “cultivating mindsets and skill sets of continuous learning” and “immersive and experiential learning experiences.”

It is an opportunity for the university to reset the undergraduate curriculum and take advantage of “what we might call tech 3.0, or what’s coming online right now, and using those tools to promote different ways of thinking, knowing and learning,” Gaudelli said.

I recognize that there's already an ecosystem of innovation in education on campus, and as much as possible, this is about plugging into that and generating new synergies where they can happen and new directions for this work to happen.

William Gaudelli

Stephen Sakasitz, a senior instructional technologist for Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services (LTS) who does work for CITL, had been working on the new XR Lab prior to the pandemic. The space will include VR headsets, tablets for AR projects, 360-degree cameras and photogrammetry tools for 3D modeling. It will be a 24-hour accessible space to students who have been given special permission, he said. 

The existing Visualization Lab in the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library will continue to function, but the focus has shifted more toward XR activities, Sakasitz said.

CITL recently purchased five new Oculus Quest 2 headsets, the latest in VR technology. Unlike older models, these new headsets don’t have to be tethered to a PC when in use. This means they can be used in more locations, Sakasitz said.

 

Graduate Assistant Bharath Kumar Sampath ’23G.

Graduate Assistant Bharath Kumar Sampath ’23G in the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning’s lab in the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library.

 

Broadening the use of AR and VR may lead to important enhancements in types of learning that depend on place and immersion, such as learning how to fly a plane, perform certain medical procedures, or train with specialized tools, said Provost Nathan Urban. AR/VR is rapidly developing and could play an important role in such education and training. 

“I think that universities need to explore the educational potential of new tools such as these rather than leave the development of these approaches to the private sector companies with different missions and motives,” Urban said.

A History of AR/VR at Lehigh

Such projects are becoming more accessible because of better and less expensive technology. Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services first began exploring AR and VR in 2008, said Gregory Reihman, vice provost for LTS and director of CITL.

Augmented reality allows a person to use technology to interact with the real world. For example, you could hold your iPhone up to a building on campus and be able to see information about its history and architecture on your phone screen, Reihman said.

When you are immersed in something, it's a completely different learning experience. You can take students to places you've never been able to take them before, whether it's a virtual field trip to see Egypt to look at pyramids or to a hospital to see surgery done in real time.

Stephen Sakasitz

“Virtual reality is where you’re leaving this physical world and entering a new, wholly different space,” he said.

The virtual reality experience is achieved with headsets designed to replace the user’s surroundings with something created in software. There are gyroscopic sensors, accelerators and magnetometers in headsets to determine how the user moves and to track their interactions in the virtual space, according to the publication XR Today.

“The experience is a lot different than a lecture in the classroom, or even just seeing regular 2D videos,” Sakasitz said.

“When you are immersed in something, it’s a completely different learning experience. You can take students to places you’ve never been able to take them before, whether it’s a virtual field trip to Egypt to look at pyramids or to a hospital to see surgery done in real time,” he said.

In 2015, CITL opened its visualization lab on the third floor of the E.W. Fairchild-Martindale Library, Reihman said. 

The lab has hosted small groups and large classes where students come in one at a time for a VR experience. Some of those projects included an earth and environmental science class studying the geography of the Underground Railroad and how it affected the movement of enslaved people going north, and a biological sciences class tour through the circulatory system, which included a ride through the blood vessels.

 

graduate students

Graduate students Robson M. Araujo-Junior and Tarah Cicero have been assisting Alec Bodzin and his team on the development of a virtual reality game about the Lehigh River Watershed.

 

Immersive learning has recently started to transition from a small-scale experimentation to a multi-million-dollar market that’s rapidly growing, according to a recent article published by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. 

In addition to offering new types of experiences for all learners, AR and VR tools can improve overall learning outcomes for students. Immersive experiences have been shown to encourage higher engagement and improve memory recall for complex or abstract topics, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), subjects that often rely on two-dimensional representations of otherwise intangible concepts, the article says. 

“At the end of the day, there’s a new technology that emerged from our broader culture, and it impacts how we do what we do,” Reihman said. “One of the things we do is teaching, so we want to ask the question of, how can we use this technology to enhance the student experience?” 

Support for XR

Projects that started as part of the Mountaintop Summer Experience, a 10-week program that encourages students to take a deep dive into an interdisciplinary, impact-focused project, include the work of Valerie Jones Taylor, a social psychologist and assistant professor at Lehigh with a joint appointment in psychology and Africana studies. Taylor’s research focuses on identity-related questions and intergroup interactions.

 

Valerie Jones Taylor

Valerie Jones Taylor in the classroom

 

She is using VR to improve interracial interactions and to help improve the diversity of those in the STEM field. 

Xiaoji (George) Xu, an associate professor of chemistry, set up a 360-degree camera to livestream chemistry lab activities to remote students using immersive VR headsets through the Mountaintop program. 

The Office of Creative Inquiry supports projects that are interdisciplinary and innovation driven, that don’t fit in a typical research lab setting, said Bill Whitney, the office’s administrative director.

One of the things we do is teaching, so we want to ask the question of, how can we use this technology to enhance the student experience?

Greg Reihman

 

“The Office of Creative Inquiry is always looking for VR projects like the ones we have now that fit the mold of the projects we want to support, which are multi-year projects that have goals of large-scale systemic change,” Whitney said. 

Alec Bodzin, professor of instructional technology and teacher education, and his team, which includes Thomas Hammond, associate professor of instructional technology and teacher education, and David Anastasio, professor of earth and environmental sciences, were another group that used Mountaintop as a springboard to launch the creation of an immersive VR experience.

Illustration by Sol Cotti

Illustration by Sol Cotti

Their work includes interactive games for K-12 students that focus on the Lehigh River Watershed and environmental topics such as flooding, climate change and the impact of  a former zinc smelting operation on the landscape in the Lehigh Gap area.

Bodzin’s team has been seeking funding to make the games publicly available through local environmental education centers and public libraries. They’ve been working with the Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor, the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Lehigh Gap Nature Center in Slatington and the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center in Nazareth.

Bodzin first became interested in VR technology about three years ago, while working with students at Building 21, a high school in Allentown, to collect environmental data from around the Lehigh Valley. When it came time to analyze that data with dynamic mapping applications on their computers, Bodzin said he found many of the students were distracted, instead playing video games.

“I said, ‘What do you think about this idea of putting a headset on and doing something game-based in virtual reality?’” Bodzin said. “They said, ‘Wow, I think I’d like to try that.’ We developed a game and implemented it with 70 students who were mostly juniors and seniors and in environmental science classes.”

The game was developed by the end of the school year, “when kids are really tuned out of school. We said, ‘If this thing works at the end of the school year, then we got it,’” Bodzin said.

One of the measures the researchers used was “flow theory,” which means a participant is so engrossed in a task they lose track of time and distractions. The students who participated in the game exhibited this “flow state."

Alec Bodzin

Alec Bodzin

When learning about the environment, the games provide an important alternative for people who don’t have transportation and those with mobility issues, such as senior citizens who couldn’t easily hike along the Lehigh Valley’s many trails and waterways, Bodzin said.

Some of the games also give a glimpse into the past by showing participants what the area would have looked like hundreds of years ago and recreating meetings with historical figures such as Stephen Palmer, the namesake of Palmerton and former president of the New Jersey Zinc Company.

Bodzin’s team includes about 20 students, five of whom are Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellows from the Office of Creative Inquiry. The office has supported Bodzin’s work by providing paid internships, student stipends, conference fees and space, in conjunction with LTS, at the Mountaintop campus for a VR lab, audio/podcast studio and video studio.

“This is a real game-changer,” Mehta said. “I’m proud we saw the potential in this several years ago, and we seeded these projects. Now it’s time to hold these projects up as examples and exemplars in how embracing such new technologies can lead to innovations and transformations in higher education.”

The Student Experience

David Tauman ’23 was among the students who watched Mehta’s footage in preparation for a trip to Sierra Leone over the summer for the Global Social Impact Fellowship’s GRO Mushrooms team. The team of interdisciplinary undergraduate students is tackling food insecurity in Sierra Leone by developing a low-tech system for growing oyster mushrooms on rice straw, providing a high-protein, low-cost and reliable form of nutrition year-round.

“I like to plan my activities out beforehand and hopefully go into them with little to no unknowns,” Tauman said. “Mehta’s videos allowed me to be as immersed as I could in the environment without actually being there, which eased my mind a bit.”

Because of the videos, Tauman got to see what the local roadways would look like, the living quarters where students would be staying at Makambo Village Resort, and the Makeni market.

The pandemic canceled Tauman’s field work in Sierra Leone three separate times, but he and his classmates were finally able to travel there July 30 to Aug. 19.

Knowing what to expect before they travel to a new location helps students be prepared to ask better questions and identify issues they may not have considered as they work on their projects on campus, Mehta explained. For example, students designing a novel diagnostic device have to consider the clinical setting and the climate in which it will be used and how it could be affected by environmental factors like sunlight and heat.

“I want them to ask better questions now in the design stage before they begin testing with their in-country partners,” Mehta said. 

The video of the market was the most helpful to Tauman, who said the path between the vendors’ tables can be undefined and it’s crowded.

When I arrived and went through the market I was still overwhelmed, so I cannot imagine what I would have felt if I didn’t watch the video and had no idea what to expect,” he said.

The video of the market was helpful in allowing students to learn consumer preferences and develop a plan on how to effectively sell the mushrooms, said Will Yaeger ’24, an IDEAS [Integrated Degree in Engineering, Arts and Sciences] student. 

“For example, most foods are sold by volume rather than weight, so our mushrooms need to be harvested and sold by the cluster rather than by the pound as they might be in other places,” Yaeger said. 

Seeing what goods were for sale also gave students a better understanding of local dietary options and preferences and provided some alternate ideas to combating malnutrition, Yaeger added. The students are in the process of publishing a paper on the subject that could lead to another project.

The Future of XR at Lehigh

CITL is investigating collaborative applications that have been developed for the Oculus that allow multiple users to be in the same VR experience at the same time. 

For example, the technology could be used to connect Lehigh students with other students across the country. A group of students could use the headsets to work on a prototype in real time even though they aren’t in the same location, Sakasitz said. 

LehighSiliconValley students are exploring the technology as a way to connect employees who have been working remotely. Their idea is to purchase Oculus headsets that can be used by employees to have regular team-building meetings in a virtual environment, Sakasitz said. 

“From my point of view, we need to learn about how all this technology can be used, develop a game plan of how it can be implemented in a sensible way and go from there,” he said. 

Putting the technology into the hands of more users is the next step, which CITL hopes to do through the new student-centered lab. 

“A lot of it is technology we already have; we are just putting it in one space where students can work collaboratively,” Sakasitz said. Lehigh hopes to launch the new lab in the fall.

 

Story by

Christina Tatu

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