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Wednesday, September 27, 2023

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Harsimran “Sim” Baweja introducing student Eunice Bae to virtual reality. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker) Harsimran “Sim” Baweja introducing student Eunice Bae to virtual reality. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker)

Virtually Present

Using virtual and augmented reality, SDSU faculty and staff push beyond the limits of the classroom.
By Michael Price

This story is featured in the spring 2019 issue of 360: The Magazine of San Diego State University.

When David Cline was 10 years old, his parents took him to visit the beaches of Normandy, France, where Allied forces landed on D-Day during World War II, handing the invading armies a decisive victory at the cost of tens of thousands of lives.

As a boy, the San Diego State University public historian saw the hillside bunkers from which Axis soldiers rained down bullets on soldiers speeding to shore.Cline remembers feeling both awed and humbled.

Philosophers have a term, numen, for the semi-spiritual feeling you get from being in the place where something incredible happened. It’s difficult to replicate, but researchers and educators at SDSU are experimenting with ways to use virtual and augmented reality to allow students to have that experience without leaving the classroom.

Cline, who joined SDSU in 2017 as an associate professor of history, began investigating the possibility of using virtual and augmented reality several years ago while teaching and researching at Virginia Tech. With funding from the National Science Foundation, he and colleagues created an iPad application using 3D models of the Christiansburg Institute, an historic school in Virginia founded to educate freed African Americans after the end of slavery and the Civil War. Only two brick buildings remain from the original campus, but it was once a grandiose, sprawling complex.

Witnessing history

Cline and his colleagues took local students out to visit the campus, computer tablets in hand. As the tablets’ cameras panned over the grounds, the site’s former glory leapt to life on the screens with virtual models of the old buildings appearing superimposed on the landscape. Students could virtually “enter” the buildings, see historic artifacts on display and learn about the school’s history.

“These fifth-graders had grown up in this area and had been driving by with no idea what this place was,” Cline said. “Through this app, we were teaching them to ask what this place was, what happened here—essentially, to ask historic questions.”

At SDSU, Cline is starting a new augmented reality project. Though it’s still in early stages, he envisions creating an app that allows students or members of the public to take three-dimensional walkthroughs of historic sites around San Diego, as well as interact with 3D models of objects inside those sites. So far, he has partnered with the Coronado Historical Society and the La Mesa Historical Society to begin some pilot projects in the spring.

“We’re trying to create sort of a seamless segue between walking through an historic house museum, approaching an object—let’s say a 19th century candlestick—and being able to reach out and grab it, flip it over and look at it—all the things you can’t do in an actual museum.”

The ability to flip that candlestick over to see its maker’s mark or point of origin gives students the chance to discover aspects of an object’s or site’s history through self-guided exploration, Cline noted, which is essential to learning to think like an historian. Such virtual exploration also opens up opportunities to students with limited mobility and allows ordinary people access to far-flung or off-limits locations around the world, such as WWI-era mountain bunkers in France or the guard towers of the Great Wall of China.

New dimensions

Other SDSU professors are using VR and AR technology to give students insight into someplace much closer to home, though nearly as inaccessible: the inner workings of the human brain and mind.

Harsimran “Sim” Baweja teaches neurophysiology to first-year physical therapy majors. When he was learning brain anatomy and cognitive function some 20 years ago, the nature of the instruction made some of the concepts difficult to grasp, he said.

“The brain is a three-dimensional object, but it was taught to me in two dimensions,” said Baweja, SDSU Instructional Technology Fellow for immersive learning. “It was drawn on a blackboard with chalk.”

In his classroom today, students virtually explore a holographic brain on iPads. They can move the brain around, disassemble it and put it back together to see how specific regions connect to one another and how disease or damage might impair certain cognitive functions like speech or balance.

Another prong of Baweja’s research involves plugging people with movement and balance disorders into a virtual world to safely assess their condition and work on rehabilitation.

For example, he looks at how stress affects balance and muscle control in people with Parkinson’s disease. By having someone with the disease walk a virtual high-rise balance beam, he can elicit a stress response that just wouldn’t be feasible or safe in the real world.

Using holographic brain models and teaching virtual reality research techniques fundamentally changes how students participate in a lecture, said Baweja, who’s also director of the Neuromechanics and Neuroplasticity Laboratory in the School of Exercise and Nutritional Sciences. “It’s no longer the case that you are being professed at. It’s two-sided, it’s a discussion. That’s really what active learning is all about.”

A CSU-wide initiative

Baweja’s class for the doctor of physical therapy program is one of 35 supported by SDSU’s Virtual Immersive Teaching and Learning (VITaL) initiative. Developed by SDSU’s Instructional Technology Services (ITS), led by James Frazee, VITaL brings virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality immersive tools into the curriculum.

It serves as an incubator to enable experiences that would be out of reach in a traditional learning environment, such as manipulating the brain as Baweja’s students can do on their iPads and getting up close to celestial events in outer space.

The ITS initiative has led to collaborations between faculty and student organizations like the Aztec Game Lab and the SDSU Virtual Reality Club. The latter received grant money to develop a VR application to support the nanomaterial curriculum for an intro-level mechanical engineering class.

“We are pushing beyond the limits of the classroom to ensure a more realistic, comprehensive learning environment for students,” said Frazee. “In 10 years, we’re going to wonder how we taught without this technology.”