Catalyst Innovation Program Spotlight – Chakrapani and Saldanha

Chakrapani and Saldanha hope that re-designing their course to incorporate various levels of interactivity through VR will help students leverage exploration spaces they didn't previously have access to.

Last October, the Hub launched the Catalyst Innovation Program, providing small amounts of funding to facilitate MSU faculty trying something new with digital tools and teaching approaches “for the purposes of allowing experimentation in spaces with the potential to enhance student learning experiences on a digitally-immersed, global campus.” 

a closeup of a Vive VR headsetTen projects were ultimately accepted in the inaugural 2018-2019 Catalyst Innovation Program, and many of them are now far enough along that we can share some of the innovative things that our Catalyst faculty have tried! First is the work of Dr. Sunil Chakrapani, Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Dr. Jenifer Saldanha, Assistant Professor in Lyman-Briggs and the CREATE for STEM Institute. Their project explores re-thinking ECE 415, an electrical engineering class, to incorporate the possibilities offered by virtual reality in teaching students about engineering, manufacturing, and design. With help from their undergraduate students, Drs. Chakrapani and Saldanha have created a virtual reality manufacturing space that students can explore. Their goal, according to Saldanha was that they wanted to see if the interaction possibilities of VR could help make some of the more complex or dangerous tasks easier for students to understand. Earlier this summer, my colleague Ryan Yang and I had the opportunity to see what they’ve developed.

According to Chakrapani, learning to understand how pieces and models fit together and interact can be difficult for students to represent in the required drawing assignments. “Students learn about concepts like rotation and how to draw models depicting it, but with VR they are actually walking around, looking up and down, interacting with the model and spaces – all of this movement will help with the autographic and exploration projections they do. In other words, the drawing exercises,” he said. Jorge Mateus, an undergraduate student in the course who helped develop some of the VR solutions in the lab this summer said that when students draw concepts “it can be hard to get at all the details.” For example, he noted “I got them but it took a long time, when I got into the VR program it almost felt lazy to me because I found the solutions so much faster.”

Chakrapani and Saldanha hope that by re-designing their course to incorporate various levels of interactivity through a man is wearing the VR headset while a student manages the simulation on the computerVR will help students leverage exploration spaces they didn’t previously have access to. For example, in an exercise during the demo where Chakrapani asked us to complete a series of tasks in a virtual manufacturing shop, we learned very quickly that running into a machine called a lathe was a dangerous thing to do. In a true manufacturing environment the results would have been – let’s say – grizzly. But in the VR environment, Chakrapani was able to tell us what we’d done wrong and offer coaching on how not to do it again. The rest of the site visit went much more smoothly for my virtual self.

Chakrapani and Saldanha’s project is only one of the ten Catalyst Innovation projects currently in progress. We’ll highlight more projects and outcomes AND announce the 2019-2020 Catalyst Innovation Program call for proposals in the coming weeks!