Industrial Engineering

Experiences Beat The Blackboard
ISE Magazine –Volume 49: Number 01
By Michael Hughes

Conrad Tucker thinks replacing concepts with experiences will boost education. Take gravity, for example. You can learn about it the traditional way – via an equation on a blackboard. But Tucker, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, is working on various forms of adjusted reality that could lead to new teaching techniques, both in the classroom and over the internet – not to mention improved operations in numerous business sectors and more personal control over your destiny.

He said when many engineering students recall their education, they remember learning concepts that were difficult to grasp when written on a blackboard. But think about taking students, putting them in a virtual spaceship, enclosing them in a virtual spacesuit and letting them experience how different gravitational levels affect how they move and interact.

Such research led Tucker, who also directs the university’s Design Analysis Technology Advancement Laboratory, to being named one of ISE magazine’s 2017 Engineers Who Make a Difference. He and his research squads also are working on big data applications and advanced decision-making tools.

Tucker said such tools can reach beyond education to manufacturing and healthcare. Already, Penn State teams have used social networks to model the spread of disease and figure out features for the next smartphone iteration. Virtual reality and its siblings, augmented reality and mixed reality, could expand higher education to more people and save businesses billions of dollars in training costs.

Virtual reality pairs individuals with a headset, Tucker said, immersing them in a virtual world with a 360 degree perspective. Augmented reality overlays digital objects into that virtual world – think of Pokémon Go, where players walk around with their phone to capture Pokémon. Mixed reality, a Microsoft term, adds interactivity.

Tucker notes that most current online programs don’t have a lot of STEM-based courses (science, technology, engineering and math). Engineering, specifically, requires laboratories and team building.

Education costs have skyrocketed while household incomes have remained stagnant, creating a challenge. Virtual reality could help reverse that cost curve. Even traditional students might not have to drive an hour in traffic to attend every class, as part of Tucker’s research aims to determine whether students learn better in traditional brick-and-mortar environments or immersive virtual reality when they engage in similar hands-on projects.

Universities could find the right balance between what requires physical spaces and what can be taught in a more digital sense. And as the technology advances, virtual reality will come at a lower price point than a traditional high-tech laboratory.

The same concept applies to the business world. Boeing and NASA are interested in employing virtual reality concepts for training. Immersive learning, similar to simulation flight training for pilots, could teach workers how to install a wing on an aircraft or spacecraft, alleviating the need for multimillion-dollar training facilities.

Applied across the U.S. manufacturing industry, pegged at $2.17 trillion a year by the National Association of Manufacturers, savings could be astronomical. That doesn’t include extrapolating such savings throughout the broader $18 trillion (as of 2015) economy.

Safety is another great opportunity for augmented reality. No matter how well-designed the system, people can make dangerous decisions or take anomalous actions. A manufacturing worker might be on his way to turning off or activating the wrong switch, something that triggers danger to fellow employees down the line. Augmented reality headsets could warn workers before they make a mistake – a kanban or visual management for safety.

And as in the iPhone example above, some of Tucker’s big data research can help businesses figure out what to include in new products and services.

If people don’t want something, it doesn’t make sense to invest capital and resources to go down that path, Tucker said. Sometimes figuring out where not to put money is just as important as figuring out where to spend.

Big data also can help physicians prepare for contagious diseases and personalize healthcare.

Currently, healthcare is a reactive system. Physicians have limited knowledge when a patient walks into the room. Big data can help medical officials view the spread of disease like a weather pattern, allowing them to prepare for the potential problem ahead of time or at least increase staff to deal with an outbreak.

The same applies to one-off events like heart attacks. When the patient arrives, medical personnel rarely know the sequence of events that led to this specific heart attack. But emergency responders can gather data from a Fitbit, an iWatch or a motion capture system from the patient’s home.

The idea of personalization is taking hold throughout society. Music playlists have replaced waiting for your favorite song on the radio. Online shopping customizes your orders. In the future, largely because of research by Tucker and others, have it your way will apply to even more aspects of life.