Into the ViterbiVerse – USC Viterbi | Engineering school



In the middle of a clean white boardroom floats a large parachute with ropes that contains a collection of props: a broom, a tricycle, a drum, and a slice of chocolate cake. A hand reaches out to grab the chocolate cake as the observers ask: what is this chocolate cake? Where is this room?

The answers are “anything” and “anywhere”.

In Elisabeth Arnold Weiss’ Engineering Improv sessions, part of her Advanced Writing course, students use virtual reality to visualize and empower their imaginations in improvisational exercises.

“[VR] is a facilitator. It’s an accelerator,” said Weiss, an associate professor of technical communication practice at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “It’s something that can go faster in the heart of learning.”

Just a decade ago, Weiss introduced improvisation into his advanced engineering writing course, Writing 340, by teaming up with Hollywood comedians and improv theater teachers from the USC School of Dramatic Arts to provide improvisation exercises where students learn to become more efficient and confident. communicators.

Now she has added another twist to the improv sessions. Starting in the fall of 2022, Arnold Weiss injected them with virtual reality. She did this because she believed that “engagement and experimentation is the best way for engineers to learn”, even when it comes to acquiring soft skills.

“Teaching and learning in the traditional classroom can become procedural and transactional,” she said. “But when we step into this virtual space, there’s something different.”

VR and improvisation

During Weiss’ improv sessions, eight students don headsets and step into virtual reality, participating 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 broadcast, waiting for their turn with the headphones.

“Even the instructors, we don’t have predetermined expectations. You know it’s designed to open things up. Not shut them down,” Weiss said.

Students love it.

Leyu Xu, a senior computer game student, said he really enjoyed showing off products to his classmates and learning to navigate the supernatural physics of the VR environment.

“The introduction of virtual reality really expands the spatial boundaries of the classroom and frees students from the limitations of the classroom,” Xu said. “It helped me to imagine how to communicate in a professional setting and strengthened my courage to communicate despite my fear of the public.”

Why virtual reality?

A self-described “technology 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 harness this digital productivity while solving the limits of creativity.

“Virtual reality is a technological medium, but it’s so vivid and intimate, which goes against how we think of technology as cold and inhuman,” Weiss said.

Weiss had been following the development of virtual reality since 2016. However, it wasn’t until she spoke with her then-mentee Leon Huang, BS ’19, that she realized the potential of virtual reality for transform the educational space.

Huang was a visually impaired student who studied computer games. The Singapore military veteran brought to class a laptop equipped with different accessibility tools to help fill in any information he might miss. Weiss found it was a challenge for him to maneuver between desks, chairs, and students inside the physical classroom, which made it difficult for him to actively participate in improvisation exercises. . Weiss’s desire to help her student better participate in improvisation exercises, coupled with a growing curiosity for the development of virtual reality, led her to ask Huang just one question: “What do you think of the introduction of virtual reality in this class?

His answer: “Yes, please! Not only did Huang’s answer express students’ most extreme desire to find more engaging ways of learning, but it 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, even though she had no funding at the time to purchase the equipment.

With a grant from the Engineering Information Foundation, a New York-based engineering education improvement group, Weiss received $24,500 to build a custom VR space and purchase a virtual headset.

She then contacted 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 objective. INTERVRSE designed five personalized virtual environments: Campus Landing, Boardroom, Future Classroom, Theater and Hotel Lobby. Each of these spaces had customizable features, which meant that students had access to endless environments and contexts.

Weiss piloted virtual reality in three improv sessions, taught by Debra De Liso and Paul Hungerford of the School of Dramatic Arts, in her advanced writing classes in fall 2022. The results exceeded her expectations. The students, Weiss said, are much more engaged in the exercises and daring with their creativity. She attributes this to how virtual reality reduces perceived barriers to communication.

“It’s almost like people are leaving their inhibitions at the door because it’s virtual,” Weiss said. “You’re a bit detached from your own identity, your own self-awareness, your own fear of judgment. It is a space of liberation. You have more of a free flow of ideas.

Steve Bucher, director of the Engineering in Society programme, added: “Finding ways to innovate within a writing program can be difficult 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 extend her impact. »

Weiss hopes USC Viterbi will continue its exploration of virtual reality to provide a foundation for educational experiences for other institutions in the future.

“It expands our current experiential learning limits,” she said. “It’s the place that I think is really ripe for very intense and effective learning experiences.”

Posted on November 22, 2022

Last updated November 22, 2022

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