CLEMSON — Virtual reality may have some of its deepest roots in the gaming community, but a growing number of experts at Clemson University and elsewhere believe the field’s biggest impact could be in the workplace.

Simulations developed at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development  are helping students across the country learn the skills that employers need in a modern manufacturing plant.

Researchers use the Oculus Rift headset to create virtual reality simulations that teach skills needed in a modern manufacturing plant.

Researchers use the Oculus Rift headset to create virtual reality simulations that teach skills needed in a modern manufacturing plant.

The simulations range from how an injection-molding machine works to a demonstration of the forces that keep an airplane aloft. They provide a peek at what the future of education could look like as President Obama pushes forward with a plan to make community college free for qualifying students.

One simulation the Clemson team has created puts students on the floor of an automotive plant. They navigate the factory from a first-person viewpoint, but instead of zapping zombies as they might in a game they look for safety violations.

Members of the team said virtual reality helps reinforce textbook lessons and can even teach students how to avoid mistakes that could be lethal in real life.

The simulations are spreading to high schools and technical colleges across the country as the falling cost of technology lowers the barriers to participation. The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, for example, is expected to cost about $300 when it hits the market for the general public.

For the Clemson team, virtual reality is the most unique part of a broader curriculum that also includes online lectures, textbooks and assessments. More than 1,000 students, including about half in high schools, are using the curriculum.

The team’s name is CA2VES, which stands for the Center for Aviation and Automotive Technical Education Using Virtual E-Schools.

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering and Science, said virtual reality is an innovative way to widen the pipeline that supplies the highly skilled workers the nation needs to be competitive.

“Manufacturing remains key to prosperity in our state and across the nation,” he said. “By teaching the skills needed in the next-generation workforce, our curriculum is helping shore up the middle class and putting families on the road to success.”

Kapil Chalil Madathil, who directs technology development, said that interacting with virtual environments helps students retain knowledge.

“This element is adding another level of critical thinking,” he said. “The learning curve is shortened when you do these kind of exercises.”

It’s important to shorten that curve when lives could be on the line. One simulation that Chalil Madathil and his team have developed teaches students how to remove a battery from a hybrid car.

It sounds simple, but doing it incorrectly could lead to electrocution, he said.

oculus rift_031The entire curriculum, including the virtual reality simulations, is shared at no cost with high schools and technical colleges.

The focus at Clemson is on the automotive and aerospace industries, but the lessons could apply broadly,  said Kris Frady, who oversees CA2VES as director of the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.

“We’re developing virtual reality for centers across the U.S.,” Frady said. “We’re at the forefront of a movement that is transforming the educational environment.”

All simulations can be done on any computer connected to the Internet, Chalil Madathil said. They can also be imported into the Oculus Rift or a 3D television, but those devices are not necessary, he said.

“High-end, immersive environments like safety simulations render really well in Rift,” he said. “We’ve seen anecdotally that people like to have that immersive experience. But with other kinds of simulations, people tend to like the desktop version better.”

Each individual college or high school instructor can decide which simulations to use and how to use them. Most simulations are geared toward students studying at home.

“We aimed the curriculum at students who might have trouble making it to a classroom five days a week because of work, family or transportation issues,” Frady said. “They can do most of the work from home and come in maybe once a week. The Internet is changing how education is delivered.”

The portal that students use to access the curriculum is www.educateworkforce.com.

The virtual reality and online lessons grew out of a need to create more technicians for manufacturing in the wake of job losses during the Great Recession.

Now that companies are hiring again, economic development officials still see a growing need for workforce education, especially for workers hardest hit by global competition and technological changes.

Frady said that while some jobs have been lost to other countries, it will be impossible to outsource some high-tech work because only the United States will have the intellectual capital to handle it.

“All of the devices we’re making now are smarter, so the people who make them have to be smarter,” she said.

Part of what separates the Clemson-developed curriculum from others is how it is packaged, Chalil Madathil said.

“Many times people create a lot of resources and make it available on the web page, but you need to package it in a way that’s appealing,” he said. “It needs to be content that instructors can use in the classroom and assign to their students.”

The research is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program. Gramopadhye was the principal investigator on the grant, which is now in its fourth year.

CA2VES is a partnership of South Carolina Advanced Technological Education National Resource Center, Florence-Darlington Technical College, Greenville Technical College and Trident Technical College.

The Clemson team itself is a collaboration of several departments and includes Sabarish Babu, an assistant professor in the School of Computing. Babu’s research group helps the team incorporate state-of-the-art virtual reality interfaces to enhance the learning outcomes.

Frady said CA2VES is part of Clemson’s land-grant mission to support economic development in the state. CA2VES also creates a pathway for students with technical-college associate degrees to continue their education by pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Clemson.

“This is really important to Clemson’s long-term strategic vision,” she said. “Students with two-year degrees tend to be more successful in colleges.”

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