Virtual reality learning tools for engineering students

// Civil & Environmental Engineering

Photo of Hannah Blum and Chris Kotrotsos

Civil and Environmental Engineering Assistant Professor Hannah Blum looks on as student Chris Kotrotsos uses a virtual reality headset to inspect a building, in this photo taken before the COVID-19 pandemic impacted course formats and campus operations. Credit: Alex Holloway.

Though 3D models have become more popular through the years, two-dimensional plans are still a critical step in many building design projects. Yet it can be difficult to look at a plan on paper and imagine the real-life building—to say nothing of its multitude of individual members.

Photo of Edward Sippel
Edward Sippel

Reading and interpreting those plans is a critical skill for civil engineers, and Hannah Blum, the Alain H. Peyrot Fellow of Structural Engineering and an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is using virtual reality to help future Badger engineers learn how to do it.

Using Oculus Quest headsets, Blum and structural engineering PhD student Edward Sippel are developing a virtual reality lab, co-funded by the College of Engineering and CEE department, and in collaboration with colleagues in the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery on campus. As part of that effort, they’re creating three learning modules that students can use to learn both fundamentals of structural engineering and how to implement virtual reality into engineering projects.

One of those learning tools is a matching game in which students view a 3D rendering of a structure using virtual reality headsets and match its various parts with a 2D building plan. The rendering has interactive icons scattered throughout; clicking an icon pulls up a multiple-choice menu for students to select the correct part name. Students can view the building plan in the module, and are informed when they click on the correct answer.

“If you look at a 2D plan for the first time, it can be pretty confusing,” Blum says. “It represents a 3D building, but on a piece of paper, it can be hard to understand what’s going on. Even though 3D modeling is very common now, people still use two-dimensional plans and we want to ensure that our students are well prepared if they encounter them.”

Image of two-dimensional building plans
This image shows the types of two-dimensional building plans engineering students learn to read. Students will be able to use one of the virtual reality learning tools to compare the plans and a 3D render of the building and identify matching structural members.

To collect feedback on how virtual reality influences students’ learning experience, Sippel and Blum are creating a survey to go with the teaching module. “We’ll get feedback on students’ background, what works, and what doesn’t,” says Sippel. “In my past, I’ve been handed a plan for an existing building and had to figure out what’s there, which is not always the easiest thing to learn the first time.”

In partnership with the American Institute of Steel Construction, Blum also is developing a virtual tour of a skyscraper that was under construction in 2018-19 in downtown Chicago. She visited the worksite in 2019 and has used 360° footage collected there to allow students to move and look around within the construction area. Essentially, it’s a virtual field trip that can take the place of an in-person visit.

“AISC arranged for the lead engineer on the project to narrate what’s going on,” she says. “You are in one area and the program points toward a column splice. Then the narrator comes in and explains what a column splice is and how it’s designed, and an example picture may pop up to help with the explanation. Move to the next area and you may look up and see a beam with a hole or interesting framing or some other structural piece with explanations about how they work.”

The final teaching tool Blum is developing is a model of a metal industrial warehouse. Using the program, students can inspect the structure’s various points and parts, with explanatory picture or video popups that detail specific pieces and 360° photos that allow them to compare it to the real building. Blum says this tool helps familiarize students with building types that might otherwise not get much attention.

Photo of Mek Sudhiwana
UW-Madison engineering student Mek Sudhiwana uses a virtual reality headset to inspect a metal warehouse building. This photo was taken prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Alex Holloway.

“Metal buildings aren’t really taught in steel design courses,” she says. “We tend to focus more on high-rise buildings than industrial-style metal warehouses. We’re working with the Metal Building Manufacturers’ Association to get their help and point out what they want new engineers to know. The aim of that teaching tool is not only to introduce students to metal buildings and industrial warehouses but to compare 3D models to real-life buildings.”

Blum’s inspiration for the virtual reality lab stems from her experiences as a lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia. At the time, the engineering division at the university had just opened a virtual reality teaching lab. It was an overnight success.

“You could barely book a time to get in because everyone wanted to use it,” she says. “I saw the potential we had and how popular that lab was. People of all disciplines, all throughout engineering and the sciences, wanted to use it. It was incredibly popular.”

With that success in mind, Blum decided to create a lab for the College of Engineering. It’s becoming increasingly common, she says, for engineering companies to offer virtual reality walkthroughs for clients, and exposing students to the technology now will benefit their employers when the students begin their careers.

“Companies are starting to use this technology more and more, and I think that’s only going to continue,” says Sippel, who worked at an architectural and engineering firm before pursuing his PhD at UW-Madison. “This is the way to start seeing what is possible, and I think it’s going to give our students who have these skills a leg up.”

Author: Alex Holloway