In the middle of a clean white boardroom, floats a large parachute on strings that holds a collection of accessories: a broom, a tricycle, a drum, and a slice of chocolate cake. A hand reaches out to grab the chocolate cake as onlookers ask: what is this chocolate cake? Where is this room?
The answers are “anything” and “anywhere.”
In Elisabeth Arnold Weiss’s Engineering Jam Sessions, part of her Advanced Writing course, students use virtual reality to visualize and empower their imaginations in improv exercises.
“[VR] is a facilitator. It’s an accelerator,” said Weiss, an associate professor of technical communication practices at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering. “It’s something that can go right to the heart of learning faster.”
Just a decade ago, Weiss introduced improv to his advanced writing course for engineers, Writing 340, by partnering with Hollywood comedians and improv professors from the USC School of Dramatic Arts to offer improv exercises where students they learn to be more effective and safe. communicators
Now, he’s added another twist to jam sessions. Starting in the fall of 2022, they were injected with virtual reality by Arnold Weiss. He did it because he believed that “engagement and experimentation are the best way for engineers to learn,” even when it comes to learning interpersonal skills.
“Teaching and learning in the traditional classroom can become procedural and transactional,” he said. “But when we get into this virtual space, there’s something different.”
VR and improv
During Weiss’s jam sessions, eight students put on headsets and enter virtual reality, engaging in fast-paced activities that cultivate innovation, forward-thinking, and even communication crisis management. Meanwhile, the rest of the class watches the interaction on a live feed, waiting their turn on headphones.
“Even the instructors, we don’t have a predetermined expectation. You know it’s designed to open things up. Don’t shut them down,” Weiss said.
The students love it.
Leyu Xu, an advanced computer science gaming student, said he really enjoyed presenting products to his classmates and learning how to navigate through the otherworldly physics of the VR environment.
“The introduction of virtual reality really expands the spatial boundary of the classroom and frees students from the confines of the classroom,” Xu said. “It helped me figure out how to communicate in a professional setting and increased my courage to communicate despite my fear of the audience.”
A self-described “tech evangelist,” Weiss believes in the power of technology to “enable human potential.” As an engineering educator for nearly three decades, she read several studies on the benefits of virtual reality before deciding to add it to her classes. During the pandemic, she came across a research paper describing how video chat communications improved productivity but diminished creativity. She decided to turn to virtual reality to take advantage of this digital productivity and solve the limits of creativity.
“Virtual reality is a technological medium, but it’s so alive and intimate, which is contrary to how we view technology as cold and inhuman,” Weiss said.
Weiss had been following the development of VR since 2016. However, it wasn’t until he spoke with his then-trainee, Leon Huang, BS ’19, that he realized VR’s potential to transform the educational space.
Huang was a visually impaired student studying computer games. The Singaporean military veteran brought a laptop to class equipped with different accessibility tools to help him fill in information that might be lost. Weiss found it challenging for him to maneuver between desks, chairs, and students within the physical classroom, making it difficult for him to actively participate in improv exercises. Weiss’s desire to help her student better participate in improv exercises, coupled with a growing curiosity in the development of virtual reality, led her to ask Huang a single question: “What do you think of bringing virtual reality to to this classroom?”
His response: “Yes, please!” Huang’s response not only gave voice to the more extreme desire of students to find more engaging ways of learning, but also served as a proof of concept for Weiss: Virtual reality in the classroom could improve accessibility and engagement.
Professor Weiss in action
In 2021, Weiss decided to go ahead with virtual reality, although he did not have the funds to purchase the equipment at the time.
Through a grant from the Engineering Information Foundation, a New York-based engineering education enhancement group, Weiss received $24,500 to build a custom virtual reality space and purchase a virtual headset.
Next, he reached out to INTERVRSE, a Silicon Beach-based startup that creates immersive metaverse experiences. It was important, Weiss said, to work with a company that was not only local and available, but also flexible, agile, and respectful of the educational goal. INTERVRSE designed five custom virtual environments: Campus Landing, Boardroom, Future Classroom, Theater and Hotel Lobby. Each of these spaces had customizable features, meaning students had access to infinite environments and contexts.
Weiss tested VR in three jam sessions, taught by Debra De Liso and Paul Hungerford of the School of Dramatic Arts, in her advanced writing classes in the fall of 2022. The results exceeded her expectations. The students, Weiss said, are much more engaged in the exercises and bolder with their creativity. She attributes this to how virtual reality lowers perceived barriers to communication.
“It’s almost like people drop their inhibitions at the gate because it’s virtual,” Weiss said. “You are a little detached from your own identity, your own shyness, your own fear of judgment. It is a liberating space. You have a freer flow of ideas.”
Added Steve Bucher, Director of the Engineering in Society Program: “Finding ways to innovate within a writing curriculum can be challenging and using improvisational theater offers many opportunities for creativity and exploration for engineering students. Elisabeth’s use of virtual reality as a way to enrich this experience is a great way to expand the impact of it.”
Weiss hopes that USC Viterbi will continue to explore virtual reality to provide a foundation of educational experiences for other institutions in the future.
“This expands our current limits of experiential learning,” he said. “It’s the place that I feel is really ripe for very intense and effective learning experiences.”
Posted on November 22, 2022
Last updated on November 22, 2022