Auto technicians examine parts of car engines. Coal miners go through underground safety inspections while others learn to size and install solar panels on a residential structure. Potential nurses perform IV maintenance, or adjust surgical tables with the wave of a wand.
These are not industry professionals. They are the students of tomorrow using interactive 3-D technology to become fully immersed in the virtual learning environment. In this era of 21st-century teaching tools, the Kentucky Community & Technical College System (KCTCS) is leading the new wave of institutions that fuse interactive 3-D models with hands-on simulations to provide multiple opportunities to experiment without risk and enhance learning for the future workforce.
Traditionally, academic institutions have relied on tools such as blackboard outlines, physical demonstrations and videos to facilitate learning, according to Marly Bergerud, vice president of education development at EON Reality Inc., a virtual reality and interactive 3-D software provider based in Irvine, Calif.
But through computers and projectors, 3-D technology allows users to see a person, place or thing as it would appear in real life. This opens the door to a virtual world of possibilities in the classroom, where students can learn about science anatomy, geography, architecture and astronomy by interacting with the content rather than reading about it in a textbook.
"These students today grew up with gaming technology," said Bergerud, also a former educator. "Now in the classroom, they're looking at the talking head and saying 'I have to dummy down to go to school.'"
KCTCS, which includes 16 colleges across 65 campuses, created the KCTCS Interactive Digital Center which currently has completed the creation of five interactive digital learning modules in the areas of energy, health care and manufacturing. The IDC has also delivered training across the country to other colleges and businesses on how to use the 3-D software in addition to creating customized solutions for industry clients.
Although KCTCS leadership had been looking to integrate the 3-D technologies into the classroom for the past seven years, the push really came in the wake of the coal mining tragedies in 2006. That's when KCTCS launched its first virtual project for the Kentucky Coal Academy to show advantages of simulation-based training.
"After the disaster in West Virginia, we decided a project could be built to provide instruction on the self-contained self-rescuers that miners use to improve training and increase safety," said Jamie Justice, director of visualized learning and innovation at KCTCS. "This simulation-based training application takes miners through daily inspection, has them go through parts and demonstrates how the breathing process works in addition to the actual donning process."
Such innovative units of instruction can be viewed on a laptop, while others use 3-D stereographic projection technology, which allows learning objects to pop out in the middle of the room. For some projects, students enter a space called a "CAVE," which has screens on the walls that project a real environment of the respective field such as a hospital room, for instance.
In years prior, Justice said, designers were limited because the technology had not yet allowed for this kind of 3-D application. But advances in technology and public awareness has bolstered these breakthroughs, which will enable more colleges to integrate and use this technology in classrooms and programs.
"When I started this, there was no easy way to build content," he said. "It's the convergence of hardware, software, instructional modalities and student expectations that's making applications of visualization technologies and simulation-based learning possible."
Companies developing 3-D content for education:
EON Reality I-Catcher