Olivia O’Dwyer: Access Engineering Launches VR Curriculum

Sophomore computer science major Olivia O’Dwyer joined Access Engineering, a student-run group that provides educational enrichment programs for local high-schoolers, in 2017. Earlier this year, the group partnered with the Penn Libraries’ PennImmersive initiative to expand how virtual and augmented reality technology could be incorporated into their programing.

Olivia O’Dwyer

This fall, Access Engineering had the opportunity to collaborate with PennImmersive, the Penn Libraries’ initiative to explore the possibilities of immersive learning using virtual and augmented reality. Access Engineering is a program started by Penn Engineering students in 2014 to provide local high school students with the opportunity to learn more about engineering with a hands-on approach. Every Saturday, we teach around 70 Philadelphia high school students, from freshmen to seniors, and have expanded the curriculum to include an advanced second semester for students who want to get a more in-depth learning experience. Students come into our program with all different experience and skill levels and from different socioeconomic backgrounds but all have a common interest in learning more about engineering and technology and devote their Saturday mornings to coming to Penn to learn with us.

Each semester, we offer lessons in Mechanical Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, and Bioengineering. However, this year we had an exciting opportunity to introduce our students to the world of Virtual Reality. After attending the PennImmersive Tech Open House in November and seeing all of the exciting applications of Virtual and Augmented Reality taking place on campus and in the community, some of the Access Engineering teachers had the opportunity to be trained to help others to use the Oculus VR software in Van Pelt-Dietrich Library.

In November, we were able to roll out a new Virtual Reality lesson to our students. The Access Engineering high school students discussed how VR works on a technical level and experienced a state-of-the-art Oculus demo and were each able to wear the headsets and experience the software individually. We also introduced the students to Google Cardboard which allowed the students to experience VR content with minimal infrastructure, showing the potential of VR to be integrated into their daily lives in a variety of settings.

During the discussion portion of the lesson, we discussed the possibilities of VR, both on a large scale and in the students’ daily lives.

We discussed how VR can be used to make educational concepts that seem distant or abstract more concrete and relevant, including in history lessons to illustrate a historic scene, or science lessons to walk through a cell model. Each person who interacts with the world in Virtual Reality brings their own individual experiences and perspective, and when you put a roomful of bright, curious students together who have never seen anything like this, it leads to a multitude of creative ideas about the potential of this technology.

We are very grateful for the opportunity that PennImmersive has made possible to expose our students to Virtual Reality and have them engage with it and learn from it, and we are continually trying to improve our lessons and help our students become familiar with the newest technologies.