The Internet is revolutionizing education with MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), distance learning, flip teaching and more. While these online learning tools have already proven effective, some skills still require hands-on training. Whether learning to work in a nuclear power plant or run an oil rig, the virtual lab provides hands-on experience in a setting where making an error is safe and nothing blows up.
A COST-EFFECTIVE SOLUTION
With 3D simulation, the learner interacts with digital equipment that behaves like the actual device, providing a flexible setting to gain understanding through all kinds of practical exercises, from the most basic to the highly complex. The idea, which simulation software experts have dreamed of for more than 20 years, took shape with the emergence of computing tools powerful enough to run these compute-intensive programs.
“PHYSICAL SYSTEMS ARE EXCELLENT TEACHING TOOLS, BUT THEY MUST MULTIPLIED BY THE NUMBER OF STUDENTS SO THAT EVERYONE CAN USE THEM AT THE SAME TIME.”FRÉDÉRIC XERRI
TEACHER IN MECHANICAL ENGINEERING, LOUIS ARMAND HIGH SCHOOL, FRANCE
“Physical systems are excellent teaching tools, but they must be multiplied by the number of students so that everyone can use them at the same time,” said Frédéric Xerri, a teacher in mechanical engineering at Louis Armand High School in Nogent-sur-Marne, France. “For hands-on exercises in my industrial product design curriculum, I use high-tech equipment; some physical models cost between €10,000 (US$13,500) and €15,000 (US$20,500). In my classes of 24 students, this poses financial difficulties, even if I divide students into small groups. Thanks to the virtual lab, students can experiment on a realistic model of the tool on their computers and then take turns trying out the real system. This ‘cyber-physical’ combination optimizes the time spent on the actual demonstrator and offers a more instructional experience.”
Another advantage is that the learner can make mistakes in the virtual world, which better prepares him to handle the delicate physical equipment, thus promoting the idea of “getting it right the first time.”
APPLICATIONS IN ROBOTICS
The Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), a university in Atlanta that counts engineering as one of its specialties, organizes summer workshops for high school students. There, teenagers use the LEGO Mindstorms NXT2, a popular introductory kit for programming and robotics that serves as a virtual form of hands-on training.
“The students must build robots capable of moving through an obstacle course,” explained research engineer Srujal Patel, who supervises the students. “But they cannot do it with LEGOs alone. They must design the missing pieces themselves.” Students test everything on the computer and do not proceed to 3D printing their robots until their virtual trials are conclusive.
Students in different locations can share and work on common digital models at the same time. Together, they can tweak their models without having to be at the same computer, resulting in an optimized robot before manufacturing – without distance getting in the way.
A NUMBER OF ADVANTAGES
Despite criticism surrounding loss of contact with reality, teachers’ enthusiasm leaves little room for doubt about the success of these methods. “It is tempting to do everything virtually, especially for students who were born in the digital age,” Xerri admitted. “But fortunately, we always need to check and give concrete expression to students’ work. Nothing can replace the feeling of accomplishment when we see that the object we have imagined actually works.”
Another advantage of this type of learning is that it avoids mishandling or deterioration of the physical model and eliminates the possibility of accidents caused by a careless student. The new design software that powers virtual labs also is used by companies where students will work, easing their transition from the academic world to the work world.
A TEAM EFFORT
Schools across the globe are making manufacturers of educational training equipment consider this foray into the digital world a positive trend, not a form of competition. “We supply high-quality equipment and care about its return on investment,” said Dr. Tom Lee, chief of education at Ontario, Canada-based Quanser, a leading manufacturer of educational equipment for engineering students, including gyros, helicopters, mechanical arms and pendulums. “To reduce the cost of use per student, we have partnered with CAD specialists to offer both our tools and their virtual counterparts. This allows us to break into markets that would otherwise have been inaccessible.”
Given the wide number of benefits offered by the combination of real and virtual training, these pioneers are blazing a trail that many other educators are likely to follow. Especially in countries where access to education is limited or inaccessible to many, virtual training can open the door to much-needed knowledge and opportunity. ◆