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Virtual Partners in the Academic Pipeline

The use of simulations, including XR tools, at colleges and universities worldwide is becoming commonplace in various areas of study. In part 2 of 2, Robert W. Moorman looks at the educational pipeline for the next generation of simulationists.

The virtual world is reality for many of today’s students. Students are demanding more immersive forms of instruction, according to numerous academicians. “We have students who are used to this kind of learning through gaming, virtual or augmented reality. They expect it,” said Dr. Ben J. Stuart, Interim Dean, Batten College of Engineering and Technology, Old Dominion University (ODU). “If we don’t start looking at this as a mechanism for education and training, as well as applications for a profession, we will lose this generation with an expectation that we were unable to satisfy.”

The growth of simulation in education and training is moving beyond traditional fields such as pilot, maintenance technician and weapons training as well as a few early-adopter vocational fields such as healthcare. In Part 1, MS&T highlighted Cranfield University, the MOVES Institute, the University of Central Florida, the University of Southern California, and Purdue University. Following are a few more institutions which are developing next-generation technologies and technologists.

Old Dominion University

Among the five engineering undergraduate programs at the Norfolk, Virginia-based ODU is the Bachelor of Science in Modeling and Simulation Engineering. ODU’s Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology offers a Modeling and Simulation Major and Minor for a MS degree. ODU also offers a Modeling and Simulation BS Engineering degree, of which Dr. Rick McKenzie is the Program Chair, as well as a Certification program in Computing and Informatics, Human Factors Psychology, Health Sciences, Education and Training, International Studies, Mathematics and Statistics and Oceanography.

Forty percent of the Batten College students are first-generation seeking a college education. Twenty-five percent are military affiliated. In the past decade, there’ve been huge advances in providing simulated hands-on experiences for students. “We shall see if these virtual laboratories become more impactful to the students’ learning,” Dr. Stuart told MS&T. New approaches are also being taken to support teaching and management functions. ODU’s College of Education has a program, an avatar, which is used for real-time training of teachers and counselors. The tool is used for mock interviews and scenario-based role-playing through virtual or augmented reality.

Delft University of Technology

Today’s students worldwide expect simulation in various forms. “If I taught today the way I did many years ago, I would lose all my students,” joked Professor Max Mulder, Head of the Control and Simulation section, Aerospace Engineering, Delft University of Technology, aka TU Delft, The Netherlands. Mulder received his PhD in Aerospace Engineering (cum laude) in 1999 from TU Delft for his work on the cybernetics of perspective flightpath displays. Like other schools we interviewed, today’s young students at TU Delft and elsewhere are primed for educational programs laced with XR-aided simulations.

TU Delftis the largest and oldest Dutch public technology university. It’s Control and Simulation section is mainly aviation oriented. Yet other departments use simulation and modeling as instructional aids, including mechanical engineering, civil engineering and architecture. Olaf Stroosma is a Senior Researcher with the Control and Simulation section and Manager of the SIMONA Research Simulator. Like Mulder, Stroosma is an alumnus of TU Delft; his research includes human-machine interaction, flight simulator technology and flight control. “Many of our alumni find employment in one of the many simulation-related companies in the Netherlands and elsewhere worldwide,” Stroosma said. While used primarily for aviation study, the SIMONA Research Simulator is used for other research such as helping mitigate the effects of motion sickness in self-driving cars. The school’s MSc and PhD candidates also use SIMONA for their thesis projects in various fields.

TU Delft faculty and students continue to work on the development of the Objective Motion Cueing Test (OMCT), an evaluation technique for simulator motion systems which is now part of the ICAO Doc 9625 on flight training simulator qualifications.

Independent simulator manufacturers consult with TU Delft on how to make simulators cheaper and better, a difficult two-pronged goal to achieve, Mulder said. Some independent simulator makers are developing simulators without buying the expensive data package from the OEM. This alternative can be time-consuming, but some companies say it is worth it. For example, Turkish software developer Aerotim Engineering, produces flight model software packages for independent makers of Level D full flight simulators for civil and military rotary-wing aircraft.

TU Delft offers a Bachelor’s, Master’s (MSc) and PhD in Aerospace Engineering. Of the 1,700 candidates applying for the BSc Aerospace Engineering program, 440 students are accepted annually. There is no annual enrollment limit for MSc and PhD candidates presently. Half of the doctoral candidates worked in industry before obtaining their PhD at TU Delft.

Fifty percent of the MSc Aerospace Engineering students come from outside of the Netherlands. TU Delft graduates have gone to work for 600-plus companies worldwide.

Much of TU Delft’s research funding comes from the private sector. The school also receives significant funding from the national and European governments. Among the companies that help sponsor research and provide internships for students in the Control and Simulation track are Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and car manufacturers BMW, Mitsubishi and Nissan.

Mulder expects to see more “digital literacy” and simulation platforms at the BSc and MSc level in the future. “I think it is very healthy for the students,” he said.

Stroosma’s Piloted Flight simulation course, AE4322 is part of the core course list. As an elective, students can take the Real-time Distributed Flight and Space Simulation course. Within the BSc program, students may work at the simulation facilities for their flight dynamics and simulation courses.

Full Sail University

Full Sail University is a private, for-profit university located in Winter Park, Florida. Founded in Ohio in 1979 by John Phelps, the school revolved initially around the recording arts and offered a degree in audio engineering. The university has since evolved into other areas of study.

Full Sail’s Simulation and Visualization Bachelor’s degree program has four focus areas: Code; fabrication; visualization; and production. The code portion includes computer programming (C Sharp and C++) and the math with which they are associated. This is followed by fabrication, where students are taught the 3D modeling package, Solid Works. Students then learn basic electronics and how to use a micro-controller, a single integrated circuit with a central processing unit. The students are taught to use 3D printers, laser cutters and CNC machines. CNC machining is a manufacturing process in which pre-programmed computer software guides machinery such as grinders, lathes, mills and routers. Students then take this knowledge and fabricate a Stuart platform (6 DoF motion base.)

From there, students move into the visualization side of the program, focusing on XR applications. Students apply skillsets learned and produce a motion-based program with an Unreal game engine, such as the school’s (Star Wars) Millennium Falcon Project. Students must create an environment inside the game engine.

Whatever you call them, simulationists, experience designers or simulation engineers, “if these students have the fabrication, code and visualization components in their repertoire when they leave Full Sail, they can go anywhere in any industry” Rob Catto, Director of Game Studies/Simulation said.

Catto noted some graduates are getting jobs at businesses for which positions are needed but have yet to be created. These graduates’ modern skillsets prompt some companies to make room for these developers of XR-aided simulations as training tools.

Catto tells the story of Massey Services, a large pest control business, which visited Full Sail. Massey wanted the school to develop an AR training program by which the technician could don an AR headset and view the wall of a residence. The trainee would be able to virtually peel away the outside of the wall to show where pests are likely to gather.

Full Sail has a graduate working at The Void, a next-generation, fully immersive virtual reality experience. The entertainment company uses a mix of XR and sensory elements. The Void experience puts users in a virtual environment that also replicates the actual environment one is in.

University of Alabama

The University of Alabama in Huntsville no longer offers MS and PhD degrees in Modeling & Simulation, as it had done for years. But those courses are still offered as part of other majors. In 2015, due to a lack of graduates, those Modeling and Simulation degree programs were shelved indefinitely. The few remaining PhD students grandfathered in the program will likely use their talents to support the aerospace sector in Huntsville upon graduation.

“We are still providing education in modeling and simulation, but not in the context of separate degrees,” said Dr. Mikel D. Petty, Associate Professor, Computer Science, Senior Scientist for M&S, Information Technology and Systems Center.

Petty now directs prospective UAH students, with an interest in modeling and simulation, toward computer science or the Industrial Systems and Engineering programs. “Our modeling and simulation graduates [from before or in one of those two programs] are in high demand,” Petty said. “Everyone who has a technical degree and is a US citizen can get a job in Huntsville.”

One former PhD graduate now works for a large defense contractor in Huntsville that supports the missile industry. Another PhD graduate works at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Petty, who worked at ODU and the University of Central Florida before coming to UAH, said there is a nuance about the use and purpose of simulation and XR as tools of higher education that needs further explanation. While all three universities include some type of modeling and simulation in their curriculum, the emphasis and usage varies by school. At Huntsville, “we use engineering as a tool to help design missiles, aircraft and components,” Petty said.

University of Southern California

Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Ph.D., Director, Medical Virtual Reality, USC Institute for Creative Technologies. Image credit: Dr. “Skip” Rizzo/USC Institute for Creative Technologies

Dr. Skip Rizzo, the University of Southern California (USC) psychologist (featured in Part 1), uses simulation and XR as tools for clinical assessment, treatment and rehabilitation including helping patients cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Rizzo and his team developed a wellness simulation application in which a student can ask a virtual human character – a virtual therapist or information specialist in this case – what problems they are experiencing. This form of clinical assessment is both forward thinking, filling a gap when there aren’t enough qualified people, and controversial. “The technology will get better to the point where people will have a virtual health care support guide that will skirt the fringes of being a virtual therapist,” Rizzo said.

And therein lies the ethical and patient-safety dilemma. Rizzo cautioned: “Will psychologists be replaced by a piece of software? It is a contentious issue. We have to tread carefully before we unleash it [a virtual therapist] to the public.”

Rizzo’s team at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies has recently developed a Virtual Human Mobile Wellness Application that incorporates a Virtual Human (VH) support agent “to promote engagement with healthcare and wellness content” for active-duty service members, veterans and their families. The system senses and quantifies behavioral signals emitted by users via wearable devices, such as Fitbit or Apple Watch. The data captured on a wearable device or smart phone can be used to engage the user on their medical or psychological condition.

“We are analyzing vocal prosody (elements of speech, such as intonation, tone and stress), which could determine a person’s current wellness status,” Rizzo said. “The virtual therapist is not going to do suicide counseling, for instance, but determine if this person in stress needs to talk to a professional,” Rizzo said.

The original sensing platform used for the mobile application was developed for personal computers over the past five years as part of the DARPA-funded Detection and Computational Analysis of Psychological Signals (DCAPS) program.

This latest example of how XR, as tools for modeling and simulation instruction, demonstrates aptly how this technology continues to evolve. They are no longer niche for a select few. From engineering and the physical sciences to helping teachers, architects, engineers and clinicians refine their craft, simulation and its supporting parts are here to stay.

Note: Examples of other universities worldwide that provide modeling and simulation courses and related degree programs: Bergische Universität, Wuppertal, Germany; Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Tronheim, Norway; Singapore Institute of Technology, Singapore; Swansea University, United Kingdom; and the University College, Dublin, Ireland.

UK Universities Team with Industry

Two leading UK universities, Bath and Exeter, are partnering with UK-based BMT, an international design, engineering, science and risk management consultancy, in the development of their VSimulators.

The VSimulator is a new test platform, consisting of hydraulically powered moving chambers that allow researchers to study the impacts of vibration and movement on people’s well-being in varied environments, from working and living in skyscrapers and on vessels to operating equipment in industrial environments. BMT provides technical expertise in developing high fidelity VR environments and conducts workshops on potential applications of the VSimulators.

BMT has exploited advances in technology for simulation-aided training and education with origins in the entertainment and gaming industries to create several XR programs. “The gaming industry is probably the most important industry in forwarding VR/AR technology (in education and training),” said Dr. Hashim Khalid Yaqub, Unity3D Developer, in BMT’s Defence and Security division. “Much of core training elements on which we work are taken from the game technology.”

Academia is using XR in education, but the practice is still not widespread. “A few more years of maturity is needed,” added Yaqub. “We are not far off, perhaps a year or two.”

Phraedra Gibson, Head of Training at BMT, and an expert at embedding psychology and global research into training to improve knowledge, skills and behavioural change, said the VSimulator is the next step in the use of VR in scenario-based training. “It further enables us to understand human response and measure psychological, physical and physiological responses to the environment,” Gibson told MS&T.

The VSimulator will likely stimulate the need for more advanced simulators to help educate and train students in areas such as Human-Autonomy Teaming, Managing Autonomous Systems, ExoSkeltons, Human Augmentation and other disciplines. “To train individuals to use over-the- horizon technology, we will need over-the-horizon simulators,” Gibson said.

Beyond academia, another BMT application getting a lot of attention is the “Familiarization Walkthrough” virtual trainer for the Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers, used by Royal Navy crew and contractors to ensure rapid and safe boarding training. This and other BMT training programs have the capability of carrying out scenario-based training. An instructor can fully monitor the progress of several students, who are tasked with extinguishing a fire and getting the crewman to safety. BMT said it is likely to demonstrate this capability at I/ITSEC 2020.

Source : Military Simulation and Training Magazine


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