Stepping up the game: New technology simulates laboratory experience

A recent graduate and a professor in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering (NPRE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have developed videogame technology to give students a realistic online laboratory experience.

“Nobody has used this to do labs,” said NPRE Professor Rizwan Uddin, regarding the teaching innovation. “This is three-dimensional and interactive, with full functionality. It is as though the person is inside the lab. The data is generated using real physics and will be taken from a realistic model of the experiment.”

“The possibilities are endless with the tools we have available,” said Imran Haddish, the May 2012 NPRE graduate who developed the lab. “Virtual labs will re-create the classroom online in ways that are impossible in real life due to budgetary or safety concerns. We can develop a course where students learn to operate a reactor or refuel it.”

Starting this fall, NPRE 100 students will be able to use the virtual lab hosted at Scivle to conduct experiments teaching them nuclear engineering concepts such as half-life and shielding. Measurement devices present real-time data to students as the virtual experiments progress.

“That was a very big challenge to display data inside the virtual model, a real computer science problem,” Uddin noted. Luckily, Haddish is skilled in computer science as well as in nuclear engineering; he earned his bachelor’s degree in three years. “We would not have gone this far in the way that it has gone without Imran,” Uddin said.

With the data acquisition being completely automatic, students “could actually finish the lab as they acquire data,” he said. They also can work with lab partners without having to be in the same place physically.

The online platform built to host these virtual labs puts everything the students need to complete their labs inside their browser. Students can process their data, write their reports, complete assessments, chat, and post questions all online using the latest technology. “The goal is to make sure students don’t need to leave their browser to complete their lab,” Haddish said.

For example, clicking on any lab equipment that has an identifying symbol (such as an “i”) on it will cause a video to play in a pop-up window, explaining the use and function of that equipment. Videos of instructors and lab assistants explaining the lab procedures also are embedded.

And the graphics are very authentic, matching what students would experience in the live NPRE 100 lab. “People who have been in the (actual) room, it makes it better for them,” Uddin said. “Even the virtual electrical sockets are modeled after the real sockets in the physical lab.”

The virtual lab provides a needed venue as NPRE’s undergraduate enrollment climbs. “In NPRE 100 we used to do two labs when we had 15 students or less,” Uddin said. “Now we have 50 students, and not enough stations to do two labs. There’s not enough time to do the labs in the actual room, but now the students can do it at home or in the computer lab.”

The virtual lab also can provide more opportunity for discovery. “There’s a lot more to learn if we can change the materials,” Uddin said. “If we use an unnamed source (in the virtual lab), the students can do the experiment and then tell me the name of the source.” Variations can be introduced in the virtual lab to complement and enhance the lab experience.

Over the past decade Uddin and his students have been working with game technology, including Unreal and Half-life, to teach students using the VisBox, a state-of-the-art, 3-D visualization system. The early efforts modeled the former TRIGA Reactor and Reactor Building on the Urbana campus. (The actual reactor was shut down in 1998 and the facility and building have since been dismantled.)

Modeling NPRE 100 teaching labs in Talbot Laboratory on campus, the latest application steps up the “game” considerably. One of the biggest improvements is that the developers have switched to the Unity game platform, so that students can now use personal computers and laptops to access the program via the web. Previously, students had to install utilities onto their machines or had to be in Uddin’s VisBox lab to gain access. “This is a technology that can be used conveniently wherever people are,” Uddin said.

Haddish masterminded the platform switch and has been the brain behind recent developments. “In my opinion, moving away from the VisBox was the only way we would be able to reach a larger audience, and the largest audience exists on the Internet. Therefore, we needed a way for students, teaching assistants, and professors to manage their labs on the Internet,” Haddish said.

“Switching to Unity made it possible to perform the virtual lab in a web browser, but that was only a fraction of the work. A content management system (CMS) was needed that is custom-tailored for virtual labs. Another important aspect to keep in mind is that the virtual labs were designed to be mobile friendly, so if we wanted to publish to a tablet we could.”

This technology may be useful for industries, including utilities such as Exelon Corporation, as well. “In talking with industry about where their interests would be for this application, they said it would be best for training of personnel,” Uddin said. When utilities need to refuel nuclear plants, for example, they bring in temporary construction workers for a short period of time, and those people need training to work around a reactor. “With a room of 30 to 50 PCs, you could train 50 people in an hour” using the game technology, Uddin believes.

Virtual training could also be helpful for emergency personnel. “This shows the real physical environment. If a firefighter plays a game in a (virtual) reactor building, he will know where to go to handle a (real) emergency,” Uddin said.

Beyond nuclear engineering, this teaching innovation may have a place in other sciences – chemistry, math or physics – or non-science, liberal arts disciplines. Medical industries also have been exploring possible uses of this technology for education and training needs.

“The technology is so new we have probably thought of only 5 percent of what it can do,” Uddin said.

“This is a unique opportunity for the university to put itself at the forefront of online education,” Haddish believes. “All you have to do is look around; everyone is focusing on video lectures today. Virtual labs is what they will be focusing on tomorrow.”

In addition to Haddish, undergraduate students Gary Ye Li, Dan Roberts, and Benjamin Sturm have contributed recently to the project by modeling the NPRE 100 lab environment. Current efforts have been funded by Haddish and the University. Earlier efforts in usage of 3-D, immersive and virtual game technology for education and training gained funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the College of Engineering and the University’s Provost Initiative on Teaching Advancement.
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Contact: Rizwan Uddin, Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering, 217/244-4944, rizwan@illinois.edu.

Writer: Susan Mumm, coordinator, Alumni Relations & Development Office, Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering, 217/244-5382.

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