The student was sitting in a Clemson University office, but when he put on the Oculus Rift headset he instantly was transported to the floor of a manufacturing plant.
Machines whirred and clanged as he moved around the factory, using the arrows on his keyboard to navigate until he found a sparking breaker box and identified it as a hazard.
The virtual reality simulation, based on an advanced manufacturing plant, is an example of the digital learning tools that could help transform how students learn the skills they need to land technician jobs in automotive, aerospace and advanced manufacturing plants.
A group of experts who have been working on those tools since 2011 will announce Thursday it has received $3 million from the National Science Foundation.
Anand Gramopadhye, the principal investigator on the grant, said South Carolina is the ideal place to develop a package of online and virtual reality lessons that could be used nationwide.
“This is fantastic news, not only for Clemson but the whole state,” he said. “South Carolina's auto industry is booming, and the number of aerospace jobs has grown 600 percent in five years.
“This program is widening the talent pipeline and making it more diverse. The need is clear and urgent. Our continued prosperity will hinge on whether we can keep the talent flowing.”
The group that is receiving the funding is called CA2VES, which stands for the Center for Aviation and Automotive Technological Education Using Virtual E-Schools.
Although it is headquartered at Clemson, the center's primary focus is on supporting technical education.
Experts with the center began developing their digital toolkit in 2011 and have been distributing it at no cost to high schools and technical colleges. The virtual reality simulations have been used in a quarter of the state's technical colleges and in 17 two-year colleges outside the state.
Lessons include online texts and videos, but a big part of what makes the lessons stand out are the virtual reality simulations that feel more like playing a video game than going to class.
"The School of Computing at Clemson has one of the sharpest virtual reality programs in the country," Gramopadhye said.
And those who complete the courses should be well-positioned to find jobs averaging $47,000 a year, according to the university.
Some simulations put students in a first-person view and allow them to move around a factory floor to look for safety hazards. With other simulations, students learn to use specialized tools to take precise measurements and how to replace a hybrid car's battery, which can result in electrocution if done improperly.
All simulations can be done on any computer connected to the Internet. They also can be imported into the Oculus Rift or a 3D television, but those devices are not necessary.
“The virtual reality simulations allow students to try things over and over,” said Kapil Chalil Madathil, who directs technology development. “It prepares them for what they will find in the lab or when they start using physical equipment.”
Students can study in a time and place of their choosing as long as they have a computer and an Internet connection, said Kris Frady, who oversees CA2VES as the director of operations at the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development.
“Flexibility is important for the students who are benefiting most,” she said. “Many are balancing their education with jobs and family obligations. Some have transportation concerns. If they use digital learning tools, they can study any time or any place and may need to physically go to campus only once or twice a week.”
The National Science Foundation helped launch CA2VES with a $2.4-million grant in 2011.
In addition to its work with technical colleges, CA2VES also is introducing its curriculum in high schools.
With the new round of funding, the group will reach deeper into the K-12 system with simulations that show students and teachers what an advanced manufacturing environment looks like.
“Part of our goal is to smash the perception that manufacturing is dirty work with long hours and low pay,” Gramopadhye said. “Today's manufacturing plants use sophisticated equipment. They are clean now. Jobs require highly complex technical skills and decision-making. This will require us to close the knowledge and skills gap.”
The group also will make a big push to reach women, minorities and students from rural areas. Experts will develop “toolkits,” including virtual reality simulations, that will be used in summer camps and available to two-year schools.
They will also continue to develop curricula and establish more partnerships with K-12 and two-year colleges, according to the university.
Joining Clemson in making the announcement will be Greenville Technical College, Spartanburg Community College, Florence-Darlington Technical College, and South Carolina Advanced Technological Education.
“We're happy to partner with Clemson on this,” said Dr. Keith Miller, president of Greenville Technical College. “The urgent need for highly skilled workers in this state cannot be overstated. Our collaboration with Clemson on CA2VES and in other areas, including the Center for Manufacturing Innovation, could be a model for the entire nation.”
The center is a collaborative effort that combines the expertise from several Clemson departments with technical colleges.
Those from Clemson come from the departments of Industrial Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Engineering and Science Education, and the School of Computing.
Robert Jones, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, said the center’s work fits with the university’s long-term goal to create an easier pathway from technical colleges to Clemson.
“Some students may go directly into the workforce after taking the online and virtual reality courses CA2VES is developing,” he said. “But the science, technology, engineering and math skills they learn will also position them for success if they should choose to further their education at Clemson.”
Hope Rivers, vice president for academic and student affairs for the state Technical College System, said, “As the state’s manufacturing economy grows, we’re going to see an increasing need for highly skilled workers. Technical colleges will play a significant role in economic development by educating them. CA2VES has developed some promising tools that instructors can use to get students ready for the workforce. We look forward to continued collaboration.”
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