Clemson University gets $4 million to expand virtual reality education program

A workbench outfitted with tools. A helicopter waiting for inspection on the landing pad. An airplane sitting inside a hangar. And a top-of-the-line manufacturing plant.

These are just a few of the locations and experiences students at Clemson University have had the chance to investigate over the past year, even with COVID-19 precautions in place. That’s because all of them happened in virtual reality.

The school first began offering VR simulation “modules” back in 2019, with students in the school’s Center for Aviation and Automative Technological Education learning through a combination of VR, augmented reality, videos and programs, many of which can feel a lot more like video games than lectures.

Now the center has just received a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation, which will allow for the expansion of its VR program.

A2, as Clemson’s VR program is called, aims to build upon the success of the school’s original VR offerings by creating a scalable and flexible e-learning delivery model that combines hands-on classroom learning with remote interaction.

And it couldn’t have come at a better time, according to the program’s creators.

“We will have an immersive virtual reality environment whereby the instructor and the students who are geographically separated will be able to join in this online virtual environment and will be able to complete activities,” said Kapil Chalil Madathil, the center’s director of technology.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the awareness of the need to address the limits of online learning, according to Madathil. In a recent poll conducted by the e-learning company OneClass, 75% of college students said they were not receiving a quality e-learning experience.

The program simulates real-world environments, such as a modern manufacturing plant.

And while Madathil and the other minds behind the VR modules don’t see it as a replacement for traditional in-person labs, they do see it as a key addition that will alleviate some of the issues that have been laid bare by the pandemic.

“This will be more in terms of augmenting the students with the right kind of skills they need prior to completing these activities in an in-person setting,” Madathil said.

The modules, of which there are currently 48 in operation, deal primarily in workforce preparation, teaching skills in the areas of automotive and aviation technology.

Angie Leidinger, Clemson’s vice president for external affairs, said the program will be a boon for economic development in the state.

“Industries continue to evolve, especially as they advance into Industry 5.0,” she said, referring to a pending industrial phase in which those in the manufacturing sector work alongside robots and smart machines. “And [to succeed] they need a qualified workforce with technical skills.”

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