Mixed reality – a new way of learning

What if attending college was like playing a video game? Yet, even better, being in the game!

Thanks to a recent grant award of $139,365 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), students majoring in construction management and engineering at Fresno State’s Lyles College of Engineering will get to do just that – be in the “video game.”

Dr. Wei Wu, Assistant professor in the Department of Construction Management, says the College is one of 12 recipients in the nation to receive the grant.

“It will be an exceptional opportunity for our students and their success, which is at the heart of what we do here,” he said. 

The name of the grant, “Collaborative Research: Cultivating Apprenticeship Learning for Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Using Mixed Reality” is a joint effort with Arizona State University (ASU).

ASU research team members Dr. Steven Ayer, Assistant Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment and Dr. Jeremi London, Assistant Professor in the Engineering and Manufacturing Engineering Program, recently visited the Lyles College to showcase their current mixed reality research. 

Dr. Wei Wu with collaborative partners Drs Steven Ayer and Jeremi London from Arizona State University

Drs. Ayer and London’s visit exposed our students to the research frontier of mixed reality and its implementation in construction/engineering education and training,” Wu explained.  “The dynamic conversation between our students and the two visiting professors was intriguing. It definitely exemplified the creativity, curiosity and boldness of our students in embracing exciting emerging technology and pursuing scientific research.” 

Wu believes that the presence of advanced information and visualization technology in the workplace has exponentially grown and the need to introduce more technology in the learning processes is vital.

“This generation of workers has changed,” Wu said. “Technology is reshaping the way things work. Before, construction was seen as a job in which you get your hands dirty, but today, we can see advanced technology ubiquitous at construction sites.”

According to the grant, for students pursuing careers in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries, acquiring multi-faceted skills is critical for career success.

In 2016,  the Construction Management Department embarked on a student-based design and built a tiny solar house in an attempt to build a wide-range of career-specific skills.

The team of construction management students dedicated multiple semesters, class time and weekends to the research, design and implementation of the Tiny House Project. They used modern building techniques and technology to maximize energy efficiency; the team incorporated a solar powered hydroponic garden for rainwater harvesting and food; smart, hand-crafted furniture; solar electricity; a smart energy monitoring system; high-efficiency heating and cooling; double glazed windows; eco-friendly lighting; greywater reuse for drip irrigation; and reclaimed redwood and pine from a barn built in the 1800s and corrugated metal siding.

Pictured: augmented reality headset

“It was very challenging, but we had a good, strong team,” Wu said. “The experience obtained from the Tiny House Project helped build a case for a project like this. It was proof that we can do something creative. It not only helped develop technical skills but also cultivated collaboration, communication, fundraising, marketing, and leadership skills from across the Fresno State campus. It improved the student learning outcomes.”

Projects like the Tiny House can be very costly, which reduces the possibilities of students to access this type of learning opportunities. Wu explained that while much of it was raised through sponsorship’s, nearly $30,000 was spent on materials and more than 1,000 work-hours were dedicated to the project.

“How can this be sustainable?” Wu asked.

The NSF grant proposal explains how this research aims to explore the use of mixed reality as a cyberlearning technology to assess how this type of increasingly affordable technology may be able to provide a similar type of learning experience for physical construction activities.

“The question is, can mixed reality replicate the enhanced learning experience obtained from physical experience?” Wu asked.

But many others are the benefits of this new mixed reality technology.

“It reduces the cost required in the physical learning process, it is remotely accessed, teachers can control how students are learning, students from different parts of the country can collaborate in the same project, and the results of this experiment may benefit smaller universities with less resources,” Wu explained.

For construction management and engineering students, Wu says, “The ultimate goal is for them to become a leader in this industry, and through this they can truly acquire the necessary skills to incorporate to the workforce and become leaders in their area.”

Maybe soon students will be learning almost like playing a videogame by playing in it!

“We will help advance knowledge in this whole community,” Wu said. “We think it is going to have a broad impact. It will fundamentally change the way we teach and how students learn.”

This story was written by Lyles College of Engineering, Communications Intern, Shady Nicolas Misaghi