Immersive virtual reality to enforce teaching in engineering education
Prior studies on the use of digital prototyping and virtual reality (VR) in designing as well as evaluating new products have shown that VR reduces both development time and costs whilst augmenting student motivation and creativity. The current study demonstrates that VR and 3D prototyping in the context of project-based learning (PBL) promote effective communication, increase problem solving skills, and enhance learning outcomes. VR and digital prototyping have been extensively used in industries for the purpose of product design and usability evaluation. In the context of engineering education, many research studies have attempted to explore the effect of VR on teamwork, engagement, retention, and motivation. In this paper, VR is used in conjunction with PBL in self-directed approach to design and implement a product using 3D software whilst also using virtual reality immersive CAVE display to evaluate their design. The hypothesis is that the use of VR with a project-based-learning approach to facilitate the attainment of desirable goals in the engineering design project, improved achievement of course learning outcomes and promoted effective communication. According to the research findings, VR approach significantly affected the distribution of cumulative project grades. Students’ project grades improved, particularly the implementation component. In addition, the course outcomes related to project design were better achieved in VR approach. The communication and problem-solving skills were improved in the VR approach as compared to traditional approach.
KeywordsVirtual reality Interactive learning environments 3D modeling Project-based learning First-year students
Preparing students for the purpose of adapting to futuristic technological discoveries and inventions entails their training to become acquainted with environments [2, 25] and interactive training methodologies whose results are comparable to hands-on-training immediately upon their admission into their university. Inextricably, the potential of their bright future is predicated on the implementation of IT and engineering-related concepts [20, 21]. Against this backdrop, virtual reality allows for real-time, on-demand visualization as well as interactive features across diverse 3D virtual worlds which are very similar to real world scenarios [10, 24]. Furthermore, recent advancements in VR technology have made it possible to integrate these systems into new game consoles. At the same time, consumer devices are witnessing a widespread proliferation for home usage - signifying a new paradigm shift in the gaming domain. Over the past two years, VR and augmented reality (AR) startups have emerged owing to the technology’s potential to affect how people work, exercise, communicate, and learn.
In order to provide an effective self-directed learning-based engineering education, many methods were deployed to foster learning. These methods are inclusive of inquiry-based learning (IBL), project-based learning and team-driven learning (TDL) . Among these, PBL has gained prominence in engineering education wherein students are working across teams to design and deploy projects which are an accurate reflection of their knowledge . Many engineering courses have adopted this approach, either partially [7, 26] or in entirety .
Since engineers are viscerally problem solvers, they are driven by the need to inculcate creative and critical thinking to either design new products or bring about improvements in existing ones. Therefore, it is critical to engage them meaningfully in creative processes, such as designing a product . Methodologies premised on team work and PBL are being increasingly adopted in education as well as workspace [16, 35]. The primary objective of including design-based projects in engineering courses (first year) is to help undergraduate students of computer engineering, electrical and mechanics to get acquainted with and apply theories of engineering design processes whilst also encouraging them to consider practical constrains when working on a project. This traditional project style in helping students accomplish these objectives is not without shortcomings. For instance, very often, the project becomes too ambitious, which prevents students from testing or implementing their hypothesis; by the same token, it often becomes so simple that some of these design concepts are of the K-12 level. Consequently, they are unable to implement the design steps in entirety.
The industry realized the importance of VR in digital prototyping, which has been utilized during different phases of design process. Leading companies like Jaguar Land Rover are increasingly integrating the concepts of VR at the designing stage of the New Product Introduction (NPI) process. This in turn facilitates the utilization of implementable 3D digital prototypes in order to make timely decisions at the nascent stages of design. By providing a feasible environment to conduct design reviews, VR reduces time and costs related to developments whilst bringing about improvements in the usability and quality of new products . F-city vehicle was designed by French company (FAM) using VR as convergence tool in the product design process . Automotive industry such as Ford, Hyundai, and Volvo are using VR not only in the building process, but also in sales. VR technologies are also used in consumer product usability due to their efficient user experience and usable evaluation even during the nascent stages of product design . Recent study provided evidence of VR technologies being a promising tool for evaluating contextual influences in food consumer research . Therefore, it becomes important to apply this approach in the academic curriculum to enable the students to practice using VR in design and evaluation and prepare them for the challenges that they will encounter in their professional life.
The research presented in  showed the manner in which digital fabrication techniques were used wherein ideas that are converted into digital designs using 3D software and 3D printers present a great opportunity to develop creativity. This is reflected in the fact that the participants’ creative competence increased by 24.04 points in the Abreaction Test of Creativity. Using 3D printers to evaluate the design is costly and time consuming. In this paper, we extend the above approach by enabling the students to evaluate their designs using immersive VR. This approach is expected to add creativity as potentially beneficial dimension to the learning process. Recent work by Tan et al. in  introduced hybrid PBL (h-PBL) where part of the course still uses traditional lecturing (TL). In h-PBL, the instructor serves as a facilitator in a project, which trained students to collect, analyze and synthesize information and enhance their knowledge. The approach introduced in this paper uses the same concept of self-directed learning by giving the students a chance to learn, apply, test, and analyze their result to enhance their knowledge. It can be considered as the first step towards a new framework for hybrid PBL that can be applied in many courses in which students utilize 3D software to implement their designs and VR as a tool to evaluate their project.
This paper extrapolates on a pilot study involving first year engineering students at the Qatar University, learning engineering and ethics subject as part of a self-directed approach to augment their problem-solving skills and communication skills in addition to enhancing their skills in engineering design. It has been explored with first year students that have no prior knowledge or skills in 3D software or programming. The project’s design and development were undertaken by leveraging 3D modeling software, or virtual prototyping. VR immersive CAVE display was also used to help the students examine their design in an intuitive, interactive and immersive virtual ecosystem. The study provides a detailed description of assessment tools and experimental design with statistical analysis of the results of student outcomes using the MWW test to check for significant differences while comparing the means with 95% confidence interval and standard significance level p value of 0.05. Detailed description of the task, process, and CAVE display with preliminary result was reported in previous paper .
In the past, many research studies have attempted to explore VR, or 3D modeling and prototyping, albeit to a lesser extent. Belgacem et al.  examined how utilizing 3D computational design software (SolidWorks) across undergraduate courses of interdisciplinary nature can provide a robust foundation for the development of both spatial thinking and communication skills. While not much research has been carried out to gauge the impact of immersing VR technique, the feedback and assessment results from the students suggested that the overall quality of team work improved and that the students were highly motivated during the course. The research in  presented virtual teaching and learning environment to support the deployment of PBL in teaching “Network Design” for Computer Science. They leveraged gamification strategies in order to boost engagement, retention and motivation. An elevated degree of engagement and motivation was observed without yielding any solid result. In  video was combined with 3D virtual world to link students who were working on a project-centric engineering design course and seeking guidance from experts within the industry. They pointed out that the engagement with experts increased their motivation for taking part in the exercise. However, large-scale investigations are still required before drawing any concrete conclusion; at the same time no study of eventual project outcomes have been mentioned. According to Travassos and his colleagues , the design of virtual laboratories related to electrical circuits that helps students gain virtual access to laboratories and collaborate remotely whilst performing the experiments. Although the process of developing 3D models was demonstrated, no evaluation or assessment was accommodated in the process. According to the research in  the feasibility to leverage VR as a tool was proven in explaining vital engineering concepts to first year students of engineering. They arrived at the conclusion that the teaching tool does make a significant contribution to enhance the student’s retention abilities, although no official results were published. In addition, they utilized a powerful teaching tool in the form of a 3D design podium (VR-based) that is non-immersive. This study entails the utilization of a virtual environment that is completely immersive and accommodates higher interactivity using a large-scale display. The above result is also supported by the study in  where using VR in student-led projects across Computer Science (CS) curriculum increased the retention rate from 54% to 64% in addition to helping students to express creativity and innovation. The study presented in  examined the immersive VR in teaching and training students at medical sector. VR-based learning came on top of other two text and video based learning with result that statistically significant. Lee et al.  assessed the potential of desktop VR technologies in enhancing learning and produced a theoretical model as well as a board framework in order to decipher the determining factors of learning efficacy within a desktop VR environment. They found that perceived learning efficacy and satisfaction drastically impacted learning outcomes. Other factors did not have an overtly strong impact on the performance of students. When compared to earlier results, this proposed approach tends to perform better in measurement criteria particularly in terms of presence, control, active learning as well as reflective thinking - all these factors significantly affect learning outcomes. Seo and his colleagues in  explored the impact of using VR learning environments for teaching cybersecurity concepts. Simple evaluation using observation and feedback suggested that students’ short and long term memory can benefit in engaging manner. As per the research work in , a feasible teaching methodology was posited for engineering students in a practical VR course. Although no reliable evolution of the efficacy of VR in influencing overall performance was presented, the motivation levels of students were found to increase. Nevertheless, there are many open source software for creating and sharing virtual environments such as Open Simulator and Second Life that mostly targets web-based VR. Although it is possible to create simple 3D contents and share it with a number of clients, it does not support view and interaction in immersive VR, which is essential for evaluation, and only allows interaction in 2D desktop display. Also, the editing tools provided are general and not suitable for engineering prototyping.
To summarize, the previous literature identified many aspects where using 3D and VR technologies in engineering education can enhance learning. It can enhance the development of both spatial thinking and communication skills [18, 36], improve the learning efficacy , increase the motivation , and it can support the deployment of PBL in teaching . Nevertheless, the VR technology is already presented as an efficient paradigm for education [5, 11, 18, 33].
The paper posits an approach to implement a project in engineering design by leveraging 3D modeling in the form of prototyping technique as well as immersive VR platform to gauge the prototype, asses the design and promote effective communication. It also extrapolated on this approach’s efficacy in influencing the performance of students as compared to a traditional approach.
The presented CAVE display provides a wide stereoscopic view to many audiences sharing the same view simultaneously. This creates a common place for the students to discuss and share ideas while inspecting the design and promote better communication as well as advanced new style of communication between the instructor and the students that is very similar to the industry practice. The approach can be extended as hybrid PBL or even virtual labs concepts in many engineering courses.
2 Engineering skills course
Engineering skills is a three-credit-hours general core course for all engineering disciplines in the College of Engineering offered in each semester. The main topics in this course include introduction to engineering and engineering disciplines, communication skills, problem solving skills, and introduction to design method.
Abet student outcomes
e) A deep rooted understanding of ethical and professional responsibility.
f) An innate ability to identify, understand and resolve difficult engineering problems.
g) The ability of effective communication
h) The recognition of broad-based education in a broad economic, environmental and societal context
i) A recognition for the need of and the ability to undertake lifelong learning
Course outcome and mapping to student outcome
1. Understand the various disciplines and the role of engineer in the society
2. Describe and analyze the consequences of non-ethical or un-professional conducts.
3. Demonstrate a schematic approach for engineering problem solving.
4. Demonstrate improved communication skills
5. Apply the engineering design methodology.
6. Search for information via traditional and online sources
Course assessment components and grading weight
Criteria used in report, implementation, and presentation rubric
The grading rubric for presentation is well defined in the literature. The rubric evaluates the students on literature review and understands each phase of the design process in addition to report writing and teamwork. The rubric for implementation stresses on the originality and creativity of the proposed design. The drawing evaluates the technical side and the usage of advanced tools and design details criteria addressed how many details were added to the design. The rubric was also designed to evaluate the course outcomes f, e, g, c, and i in Table 3 so as to better reflect the student’s achievements. The course components are the same in both sections; only minor changes were made in the weight of report and implementation. However, the grades were normalized in accordance with Table 4 so as to facilitate data comparison.
The students are required to practice the entire process to master the design method; therefore, they must develop a prototype in order to apply testing and evaluation. In order to help first year engineering students to create a prototype, it is paramount that the ideas are simple enough to be easily implementable; else, it can be reduced to mere concepts with drawings without being implemented. This not only curtails the scope and difficulty level of projects, but also stifles the students’ creativity and discourages them from exploring myriad approaches to fully decipher the underlying objectives. The traditional approach was essentially based on giving students several simple project ideas based on K-12 skills and asking them to develop a final prototype. Examples include a design wind powered machine, a hydraulic clock etc. This approach has been used for the past few years and we have sufficient data when it comes to understanding the students’ performance.
The 3D model had to be presented in a format which made it possible to be seen on CAVE display. Students were also instructed to ensure the model view’s proper alignment with CAVE display. This was done to make sure that the viewer could stand right at the middle of this model. They enjoyed learning about the numerous nuances of 3D graphics and looked at their work (that could be viewed on the display) with a sense of accomplishment. After brainstorming, they were directed to come up with a minimum of three solutions prior to analyzing them on the basis of several criteria of constraints and success.
Although they were able to access the lab to test their prototypes, two official sessions were arranged for them to demonstrate their design on CAVE display for the instructor and the whole class. They were instructed to investigate the model and pinpoint problems during their initial visit; this had to be done by visualizing their actual presence in a kitchen. Students made this demonstration before the entire class, which prepared them better to examine different ideations whilst facilitating interactive feedback. For other students as well, this was an engaging experience since they were allowed to put on 3D glasses and obtain a firsthand experience of the design in conjunction with the presenter. Consequently, this provided a favorable environment to undertake constructive discussion and involved the whole class. The students admitted that this high fidelity, interactive display enabled them to uncover several problems that would be otherwise impossible to identify using a conventional desktop display. Also, this display provided a great platform for the students all to view the model in 3D and to communicate and discuss different aspects of their design that is usually difficult to achieve in other types of displays.
Furthermore, this mechanism also enabled the instructor to share meaningful feedback about how to improve the design, asking students to take these comments into consideration and think about making proactive modifications to address any underlying issues. This step was deemed as the product’s initial evaluation, allowing students to undertake intelligent experiments and implement iterations quickly, which is a key element of the design process. This contrasts with the conventional approach which makes it unfeasible to redesign the project owing to time and cost constraints, but digital prototyping in VR made it easier to implement at a lesser cost. Subsequently, they were provided another chance to demonstrate the manner in which they addressed the design problems identified during the first visit.
4 Experiments and result
Questionnaire to evaluate course outcomes
Questions about Course Outcomes
1. By the end of this course, I am able to: understand the various disciplines as well as the role of an engineer in the society.
2. By the end of this course, I am able to: describe and analyze the consequences of non-ethical or un-professional conduct.
3. By the end of this course, I am able to: search for information through conventional and online sources.
4. By the end of this course, I am able to: implement the engineering design methodology.
5. By the end of this course, I am able to: exhibit enhanced communication skills.
6. By the end of this course, I am able to: implement a schematic approach to solve engineering problems.
Questionnaire to evaluate course teaching
Questions about Course Teaching
1. Course content delivery and teaching methods generated my enthusiasm for learning the subject matter.
2. I learned important things in this course.
3. My interest in the subject matter has increased after taking this course.
4. Students were encouraged to do some independent study or to explore different viewpoints.
Based on the further analysis of this questionnaire, it was concluded that the VR approach was found to be very interesting for 90% of the students. The concept of being able to interact in a 3D virtual environment that the students had created by themselves was very appealing to them. They felt a sense of accomplishment and because it would not be just another abstract idea that would remain unimplemented on paper. The survey included two questions regarding the portions that were easy and difficult whilst completing the project. Students mentioned that they found learning 3D modeling to be the most difficult part; this could be made easier for them by providing additional help in the form of a teaching assistant. Regarding the number of failed students, it has been found that three students failed in traditional approach section compared to one student in VR approach section (66.6% improvement) which can be considered as another positive indicator.
In each section, the grade of these students was incorporated to make a comparative assessment of both approaches. These grades were divided into three groups: (1) cumulative course grading for all components of the course; (2) project grade restricted to project components; and (3) grade for all components, barring the project.
The statistical analysis results
Grade excluding project
Sum of Ranks
The median of the cumulative course grade improved slightly from 78.1 to 80.5, and the mean increased from 75.4 to 80.5. However, the above MWW test resulted in a p value of 0.490 – sufficient enough for retaining the null hypothesis. Thus, the VR approach did not make significant changes on the distribution of the cumulative grade. In other words, the new project approach did not decrease the student grade, so the student performance will not be affected negatively. Looking into the grade for all components of the course except this project, the median reduced from 78.4 to 75.85 but the mean increased from 73.4 to 76.4. According to the MWW test, the p value stood at 0.800. This indicates the absence of any significant changes in the grade for all courses after the exclusion of the project.
VR technology moved from being the technology of future in science fiction movies to an established technology in many sectors. Many large companies like Siemen, Jaguar, and Arup are using VR immersive technology to transfer their engineering processes . VR is already being used in industrial design and design engineering to generate product prototypes for automotive and aerospace which is very similar to what the approach proposed in this paper. Immersive VR enable engineers to visualize these prototypes, walk and interact to improve the design or identify and fix issues in the product before a physical prototype is made. In construction VR is expected to impact the design and construction practice as it can provides easy visualization. Electrical appliances can use VR to check the exact storage and demonstrate the appliances and get better marketing feedback. Moreover, it provides safer and more effective training for engineering. Above all, VR can revolutionize the collaboration between teams where engineers in remote locations can work together. This is one of the challenges that VR is addressing where we can see many systems that enable such collaboration. The future for VR is promising but there several engineering hurdles before being able to fully simulate reality effectively. The resolution of the display must be high enough, with fast update rate to avoid cybersickness. Also, the field of view must be wide enough with realistic simulation of the lighting and shadows which need high processing power. Above all, we need to reproduce different sensation like touch, sound, and motion. Training the students on such a skill will be indispensable for engineering industry.
As an improved teaching-learning environment, the utilization of VR and 3D software can provide students of engineering with excellent tools to examine, design as well as develop new concepts. This approach can be utilized effectively in developing a conceptual framework for engineering design using VR. In this work, VR was only used for evaluation due to constraints in making immersive VR available for all students at any given point in time. However, VR can also be utilized during the design process by using new affordable VR headsets like Oculus Rift, HTC vive, and recently low-cost Oculus Go, which provides the benefit of high resolution and stand-alone portable whilst obviating the need for PC or cables. Many headsets can be provided all the time to students in designated labs to enable them to utilize VR during the whole engineering design process; the students can also purchase this headset easily as it costs less $200. The suggested framework can be an extension of the presented steps by making evaluation easily available for students to test and evaluate their designed artifacts in addition to the different phases of design at any time. The first step is denoted by ideation where the students are asked to produce at least three potential ideas or solutions, before using analysis mechanisms, such as advantage matrix before selecting one of the best solutions. Repetitive implementation, testing, and evaluation phases using 3D modeling software and VR environment and headset is also utilized. There is still a need to come up with more robust evaluation rubrics of the students’ attainment of learning objectives using such an approach. The advantage of this framework is it enables the designer to visualize, analyze, optimize, and test the product.
In summation, it can be safely concluded that VR has the potential of being used as an effective tool for education. Against this backdrop, the research study assessed the provision of design component within the overarching theme of an engineering course in order to teach design skills via a PBL methodology. In this approach, a virtual prototype was implemented in a VR environment that was fully immersive. The evaluation of VR approach is predicated on the students’ achievement of project goals. The result demonstrated a significant effect of using VR in increasing the cumulative project grade and specifically on the implementation component of the project in addition to enhancing the engagement and motivation of these students and better achievement of the course outcomes.
Given that this approach can be implemented without necessitating prior skills, it becomes a very attractive proposition especially for students. This also builds on the growing body of studies on how VR can be used successfully within the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) curricula, especially with recent availability of very low cost and stand-alone VR headset. In recent studies, recommendations have been made to incorporate Art and Design in order to foster both reasoning and creativity. This signals the gravitation towards a new system that includes Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Arts & Design (STEAM) . This concept stressed on the significance of encouraging the growth of engineering professionals in the long term, especially due to the fact that engineers are required to constantly adapt to the evolving realities of workplace in an inherently fluid ecosystem.
Recent advancements in VR technology have augmented the quality of visualization whilst also making it more affordable. This positions VR as a feasible alternative to the conventional method of teaching. Moreover, it can be a robust tool to test as well as evaluate new products. The results of this research demonstrated the efficiency with which the students were able to interact with the environment and visualize their design challenges.
Open Access funding provided by the Qatar National Library.
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