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From Abstract to Hands-On: Using VR to Teach Thermodynamics

In 2020, our team at Field Day Lab partnered with John Pfotenhauer (Professor and Researcher, UW-Madison Engineering) to create a Virtual Reality simulation for teaching undergraduate thermodynamics. I sat down with Professor Pfotenhauer and Field Day Director David Gagnon to talk about what makes this prototype so groundbreaking — and where the project is headed next.

David Gagnon (Field Day Director) at one of our teacher fellowships!

Like for pretty much everyone, 2020 challenged our team like never before: unexpectedly working from home, dealing with pandemic budget cuts, and learning to adapt to a world in lockdown. But it was also a year that resulted in some amazing new projects. One of the biggest successes, and one we’re excited to celebrate: our new Thermodynamics VR simulation.

The Thermo VR project was an exciting collaboration with Professor John Pfotenhauer, who teaches undergraduate thermodynamics here at UW-Madison. John reached out to David Gagnon, Field Day Director, with an idea that had been brewing for a long time. Together, our combined team ended up with something groundbreaking: thermodynamics principles translated into code — and available to the public — for the first time ever.

The Planning Phase: Using VR to Dive Into Abstract Topics

If you’re asking what thermodynamics actually means, you’re not alone. For beginners, thermodynamics can feel abstract and difficult to grasp. Basically, the field deals with the relationship between temperature, pressure, and volume on a given substance — like why food cooks faster in a pressure cooker, or how air conditioners compress and decompress freons in order to cool a room.

In intro level courses, it can take at least half a semester for students to start being able to visualize the principles they’re learning about. John and David hoped a VR simulation would make the process more tangible and intuitive.

“The standard approach has been to look at tables of numbers,” said John, “or in more modern courses, some piece of software where you type in 2 numbers and another number spits back at you.”

John Pfotenhauer, Engineering Professor here at UW-Madison

John wondered if there could be a faster, more intuitive way to help students learn.

“The idea of getting a picture in your mind was the starting point,” John said. “And then it evolved to, wouldn’t it be cool if you could experience it, and walk around in it?”

John brought his idea to David in 2019. That summer, some of the Field Day team met with John and his colleagues for an all-day brainstorming session. The team realized they could use a VR simulation to capture the equation of state surface used in thermodynamics classes, in a responsive iteration that students could touch and see and manipulate.

This partnership has been in the works for a long time. David remembers working on a few projects with John for the first time at least twelve years ago, before Field Day even existed. One of these projects was, in David’s words, “a total flop” — which makes the success of this new project all the more exciting. (Everybody loves a good redemption arc.)

In 2019, David and John applied for the School of Engineering’s Education Innovation Award. They were awarded a grant, and they matched the award with their own internal funding. And they set to work creating something that had never been done before.

The Design Phase: Coding from the Ground Up

In its early stages, the Thermo VR project ran up against one serious roadblock. The equation of state that the simulation would be based on — the gold standard used around the world to describe the properties of water — didn’t exist in the language of programming. That means the project team had to build the code totally from scratch.

“It was technically very risky when we realized we didn’t have the math,” David said. “The assumption was that the math already existed somewhere, and we could build an interface on top of it. Instead, we had to put in extensive effort just to get the math, to create the code that simulates all the properties of water.”

One of the heroes of this process was Philip Dougherty, computer scientist, game designer, and all-around brilliant human. Phil read several publications to gain a deeper understanding of the 3D surface that the simulation needed to capture. He spent months finding partial implementations in different coding languages. Then, with extensive feedback from John and his colleagues, Phil developed the code to convert the math from those publications into what you see through the VR headset.

Phil’s eureka moment! (Okay, just kidding…. the reality was more like months of hard work, but it’s harder to capture that in a photo.)

This is one of the benefits of having a design team that includes computer scientists and researchers. “A couple years previously, another team tried to do it,” John said. “They made some progress, but Phil came in and blew right past them.” (Insert round of applause for Phil and the whole Thermo VR project team here!) If you have an idea for a project but you’re worried it would be too complicated, let’s talk. Many of our games and simulations have focused on complex topics, including mathematical modeling, the environmental impact of the phosphorus cycle, the IceCube neutrino detector at the South Pole — and now, thanks to this project, college-level thermodynamics.

Now that the code has been developed, we’re excited to share it as a resource for anyone who needs it. “We’re going to write at least one paper on the math,” said David. “We want to make sure the engineering world knows that now there’s a free implementation out in the world.”

The Simulation: Thermodynamics Like Never Before

A glimpse of the VR user interface!

The Thermo VR focuses on one objective: helping students understand how changes in pressure, temperature, and volume affect a substance. In this case, water.

“From a learning standpoint, this project is really elegant,” said David. “It’s not a big, flashy game. It does this one thing. It allows you to interface with the equation of state in what turned out to be a very usable, very natural way.”

Players stand in front of a table and conduct experiments that would be impossible to do so quickly, or at all, in real life. The key feature is a piston cylinder full of water. This cylinder is used often in thermodynamics as an example of a closed system with a constant mass, but usually the example is only theoretical. The VR allows students to see and interact with it.

“We took the quiz problems that already exist, and we built the schematic version,” David explained.

Players can pick up and place Bunsen burners, cooling coils, weights, balloons, and more. Corresponding sliders allow them to alter the temperature, volume, and pressure of the water in the cylinder — and the water responds accordingly.

“Phil’s got it really nicely coordinated,” said John. “For example, the liquid inside the piston cylinder changes from looking like a liquid to a vapor as it expands. The graphic really anchors the idea we’re trying to communicate.”

This was born out in our beta testing with students. “It was interesting to see what the 3D vapor dome actually looks like,” one of the students said.

Which brings us to another particular challenge of this project — beta testing during a global pandemic.

User Testing: Masks Required

At Field Day, we conduct research on all of our games. This allows us to contribute to the greater understanding of how people learn, and it also allows us to improve our games and strengthen our design theory.

Thermodynamics student Vijay Shah testing the VR

Originally, we planned to test the Thermo VR with more than a hundred students. Then the pandemic happened.

“It was really a pain,” said David, summing up exactly how most people felt about 2020.

The research team did end up doing hands-on beta testing on campus, but they used a drastically smaller sample size and strict safety measures. Having been teaching through covid, John already had some experience in this area.

“John is an incredibly passionate teacher, and this became so apparent during covid,” said David. “Usually, thermodynamics courses have somewhere around 50 students in one section. With covid, they could only safely gather three to five of those students for the hands-on activity. So John just ran his lab four times over and did four times the work.”

In order to beta test the VR experience, John recruited five student volunteers from the thermodynamics courses. He got special permission to use a UW-Madison room. Then the students came in and tested the VR one at a time, with mask-wearing, careful physical distancing, and the VR headset thoroughly sanitized between each use.

Thankfully, the student surveys ended up giving us all the data we needed. “The results were pretty unanimous,” Dave said. Across the board, the students agreed that the VR was fun to play and incredibly useful for grasping the introductory principles of thermodynamics. They pointed out small areas for improvement and made some awesome suggestions.

“The novelty of VR is fun, considering [that] most people have little experience,” one student wrote. “I learned a lot in a short period of time while having fun. That, to me, seems like the ultimate goal of a teaching experience.”

Next Steps: From Prototype to Project

The project team is excited to have a prototype that works smoothly and does what we set out to do. Now the plan is to start exploring all the possibilities for how the project can make an impact in thermodynamics courses across the country.

“The idea is, let’s really clean it up,” said David. “Let’s get it ready for a true public audience and get it distributed to all the colleges teaching thermodynamics.”

This year, David and John plan to apply for the NSF’s Innovating Undergraduate STEM Education Award. If they receive funding, they’re excited to make improvements to the VR simulation and create an equivalent version that can be played online .

“It comes at such a good time,” John said. “So much of education is moving online. With an online version [of the simulation], you’d still be able to get the same effect with a 2D rendering of the 3D experience.”

The project team is also interested in how the game might be useful for graduate students. After in-depth Zoom sessions with Phil last year, talking through the nuances of the code, John brought some of those conversations to his graduate-level courses.

“It’s cutting-edge, and at the same time, it’s really core material,” John said. “When I realized the sophistication and level of difficulty involved in what we’d done with Phil, I thought, wow, this would be good material for my graduate students to see.”

Sarah Gagnon, Field Day’s creative direction, is excited about moving the simulation to a space that looks like a real thermodynamics lab, in order to allow players to feel immersed in the role of a scientist. Right now, the VR experience transports players to a warm, cozy office — basically a “stock photo” setting — because most of our time and energy was spent creating the code and the mechanic.

“I’m excited to get a chance to make the next version look cool with our incredible team of artists,” Sarah said. “The mechanic comes first, but the art also has a significant role to play.”

We’re excited to continue this partnership with John and his colleagues. “John is super committed,” David said. “He’s absolutely wonderful to work with.” Hopefully, the next version of our work together will reach thermodynamics students all across the country and beyond.

Thank you to John, the project team, and all of our student testers for making this project possible!

Are you interested in making a game or simulation with us? Get in touch with David at djgagnon@wisc.edu.

Do you have access to a VR headset? The Thermo VR pre-release is available and free to use here!

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Lindy Biller

Lindy Biller

Writer and storyteller with Field Day Lab