Vive VR System being demonstrated.

Penn State Fayette introduces virtual reality to the classroom

By: Shannon Sankey

Information Technology Services (ITS) at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus demonstrated use of virtual reality (VR) technology for an integrative arts course on March 14 in the recently renovated Engineering and Arts Suite.

The course, which explores biomedical applications in 3-D printing, is team-taught by Associate Professor of Engineering Nate Bohna and Assistant Teaching Professor of Nursing Valeria Vanderhoff. Students will use the VR technology, recently purchased with funds from the student technology fee, to design objects in virtual reality for the purpose of 3-D printing.

“Instead of sitting at a computer and dragging a mouse, students can render an object in virtual reality and export it for 3-D printing,” said Jeff Medvec, ITS manager. Medvec has been instrumental in developing VR capabilities on campus.

A Vive VR System, including a headset and two controllers, coupled with Google Blocks, a free modeling program, allow users to design objects in the third dimension with six simple tools: shape, stroke, paint, modify, grab and erase.

In February, ITS stationed the fully immersive setup in the Media Commons of the Eberly Building and began offering information sessions for faculty. This project is the first pedagogical application of the technology on campus.

“The advantages to introducing VR to the classroom are increased student interest, engagement and commitment,” said Vanderhoff. “My hope is that this venue encourages students to explore and connect to their personal creative sides. Literally, the sky is the limit.”

Vanderhoff plans to use VR in the future to enhance student study techniques when reviewing difficult concepts in nursing, such as anatomy and physiology. Bohna hopes to incorporate VR in his engineering courses to explore 3-D vectors in a more engaging way.

VR presents pedagogical challenges, too. The setup requires a contained area for users to move around within and, for now, must be retrofitted to existing spaces on campus. Additionally, with one set of equipment, a class of 20 students must book windows of time with faculty assistance in order to experiment with the technology and complete projects. Medvec hopes to expand capabilities and designate a space for VR in the future.

The Fayette campus is among the early higher-education adopters of VR in the region, following the lead of University Park’s The Dreamery, a co-learning facility for the exploration of emerging technologies.

Machaela Hall, a nursing student, was among the first to try on the headset and take the controllers in hand. She stood in the center of the room, her view projected on the wall at the front, and oriented herself in the virtual plane. After some hesitation, she built several cylindrical towers and cubic structures with a few waves of her hand. Her peers looked on in equal parts suspicion and awe.

“It was my first experience being completely immersed in a virtual world. Everything seemed so real,” said Hall. “I love the hands-on learning it offers. Instead of seeing a picture in a textbook, you can explore it in VR.”