BROOKINGS, S.D. — Technology changes constantly, as well as how we go about teaching and learning with these newly developed tools.
At South Dakota State University, virtual reality is allowing rare hands-on career training to be an everyday goggles on educational experience.
“Based on our past and current use of virtual reality, we were chosen by Meta through a company called VictoryXR, to have our campus built out in the metaverse and we’ll be teaching two classes this year. This next fall, fall of 2022, we’ll have virtual reality as a component of those two classes,” explains Greg Heiberger, associate dean for the College of Natural Sciences at SDSU.
With this partnership, SDSU received new virtual reality equipment.
“So a part of this partnership is that we have 50 headsets for students to use, and so those students will be able to take those home with them, be able to extend the classroom through the use of virtual reality, and then the buildout of our campus will happen as a part of that relationship,” Heiberger adds.
Virtual reality (VR) sets provide an immersive experience via electronics — similar to being “inside” of what you would see on the screen.
“If you can imagine being on your computer and the ability to simulate any sort of educational environment, whether that’s a lecturer or a lab, that can happen. But you are interacting with that through a mouse, and so very kind of different tactile environment than being in the lab. The thing about virtual reality is you can approximate that. You’ve got 3D spaces, you have the ability to use those controllers to function like your hands would function and to be able to to rotate, to be able to grasp, to be able to pour. So if we think about things that happen in the real environment, real labs, it’s not the exact same — but we’re starting to get close through virtual reality,” explains Heiberger.
This is particularly helpful in classes and majors where simulations of specific learning opportunities are rare and costly, such as chemistry or nursing.
“We can envision, say, chemistry, which is something that’s at the micro level that’s really hard for us to visualize. We can expand that in virtual reality and in 3D and be able to hold that in our hands — whether that’s DNA or COVID or cells and molecules, and then the same thing with anatomy. SDSU has an amazing cadaver program in anatomy. We have thousands and thousands of dollars of physical models that students can hold and touch, but there are limitations to that. You can only be in lab at certain times. Virtual reality — you can approximate that in the sense that you can still hold a virtual version of a cadaver, a virtual version of that model, but you can do it at midnight on Friday night and 2 a.m. on Monday when it works for you as a college student,” Heiberger says.
VR has already been integrated into training in certain medical fields, so this program also helps familiarize students with the training materials students may face after graduation too.
“You’ll see physicians and surgeons being trained in virtual reality because they can repetitively do this work and build a skill set that might not happen in the real world. I think that’s really important for rural and remote spaces. So we’ve had conversations with that science and the association’s DVM program that’s partnered with the University of Minnesota to be able to simulate in virtual reality some of those cases that are rare.”
With the launch of virtual reality classes in the fall, Heiberger says SDSU hopes to continue to expand the integration of VR at the school and even surrounding high schools.
“Because these are mobile, because the price point is where it is right now, we have the ability to put 12 of these in a suitcase and take it to a rural middle school or high school and be able to get them in the virtual environment and experiencing things that maybe they couldn’t do without this. I think on the recruiting and the outreach piece, there’s a lot of growth potential. I think on the curriculum side across the university, there’s a lot of growth potential and a lot of partnerships that are continuing to form. And then I think as we think about the workforce, I think there’s a lot of potential there as well because when you think about workforce training, a lot of that is repetitive and it’s something that takes infrastructure. And if you can build that infrastructure in virtual reality, we could be a great partner at SDSU to help business and industry explore those opportunities.”