The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) is taking steps to expand virtual reality (VR) usage and research with their partnership with major firms Google, Lenovo, and Labster. Taking effect this fall, these efforts led by the UTSA Office of Information Technology (OIT) will use VR to simulate university-level science laboratory work without the need for an actual lab.
As per a statement released by UTSA, the program will allow students to utilize high-end VR equipment containing both science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) content created by Labster that uses a virtual learning environment, as well as content developed by UTSA to “support student success”. The system will be integrated into several courses through Blackboard and will be available to all students through the OIT Digital Experience Lab, scheduled to be opened later this fall.
The program was developed by global VR provider Labster who, alongside Lenovo and Google, created the system at the international level to promote STEM student success. The biology lab, specifically, was created with intent to expose students to emerging technologies and engage them with learning goals through interactive experiments. These experiments will utilize both 360 animation and simulated data.
“Providing resources and training to support faculty in serving students is essential as we begin to evolve the technology in classrooms to support our next generation learners,” said Joe Tobares, director of Learning Technology at UTSA. “With the creation of the new DEx Lab [OIT Digital Experience Lab], we now have a place to promote innovative learning tools like never before.”
The content currently available supports students in introductory biology classes, as well as students interested in pursuing education in engineering and science. Modules released by Labster include simulations of cellular respiration and lab safety. The VR content provider plans to release more simulations within the year. UTSA states that they have plans to create school specific tools as well, integrating a “student success module” to nurture retention and graduation rates.
The OIT Digital Experience Lab will also serve as an environment for all involved at UTSA can use VR equipment, expanding the institutional use of VR in education. The school plans to promote participation in VR programs by having a team of faculty partners, as well as OIT, work to continually develop content.
“UTSA has been an early adopter in scientific visualization technology since we obtained an NSF equipment grant in 2009. The grant enabled the establishment of the Advanced VizLab on campus in 2011,” said UTSA professor of Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering and director of Center for Simulation Visualization and Real Time Prediction, Yusheng Feng. “The new VR technology will push visualization for research and education to the next level by bringing VR to the classroom. We expect more enthusiasm and creativity through VR learning of our students.”
Other UTSA faculty share this excitement about the new VR program, with assistant vice provost for IT, Vanessa Hammler Kenon describing the system as “groundbreaking technology for UTSA students and faculty.” She goes on to add that “OIT entered this collaborative project with funding from our Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation iPASS grant which introduced and supported numerous student success efforts on our campus in continued support of the UTSA Strategic Plan.”
— Dean Hendrix (@deanhendrix) October 3, 2018