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VR Classroom Immerses Students in Nanotechnology

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In a custom-developed virtual reality (VR) classroom at the University of Arizona, students can pick up and examine scaled-up versions of nanosize objects. The classroom is part of Nano 2020, a University of Arizona-led initiative to develop curriculum and technology focused on educating students in the rapidly expanding role of nanotechnology within the fields of agriculture and the life sciences.

The extremely small scale of nanoscale objects can make comprehension challenging. Within the VR environment, where science data has been transformed into images and rendered in 3D, students can look at and interact with, for example, a carbon atom.

Nano 2020 VR classroom will teach students about nanotechnology, University of Arizona.
The virtual reality classroom will give students an opportunity to experience something that they have only an abstract idea of, such as what a carbon atom looks like. It could also  provide a new perspective on what technology can be used for. Courtesy of the University of Arizona.

Students can also interact with their instructor and peers. The VR classroom allows for multiplayer functionality, giving educators and students the opportunity to connect in a VR laboratory in real time, no matter where they are in the world.

The technology was developed by a group of student programmers and developers led by Tech Core director Ash Black in the Eller College of Management. “What really intrigued me about virtual reality is that it is a tool where scale is elastic — you can dial it up and dial it down,” Black said. “Obviously, with nanotechnology, you’re dealing with very, very small things that nobody has seen yet, so it seemed like a perfect use of virtual reality.”

Student programmer/developer Tim Lukau (r) stands by as two students simultaneously explore the Nano 2020 environment. Courtesy of the University of Arizona.
Student programmer/developer Tim Lukau (right) stands by as two students simultaneously explore the Nano 2020 environment. Courtesy of the University of Arizona.

The goal of the Nano 2020 team, which comprises faculty from the University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, and Johns Hopkins University, is to create an online suite of undergraduate courses that is not university-specific but can be accessed and added to by educators to reach students around the world. An online library will be created to facilitate the ongoing expansion of the open-source curricula. Modular courses on subjects such as optical microscopy and histology, nanomicroscopy techniques, and applications of magnetic nanotechnology will be disseminated through technologies such as the VR classroom.

“We created a robust and flexible set of module-based course packages,” professor Matt Mars said. “Instructors will be able to pull out components and integrate them into what already exists to continue to move toward a more comprehensive offering in nanotechnology education.”

Portions of the Nano 2020 curriculum are currently being offered as electives in a certificate program through the Department of Agriculture Education, Technology, and Innovation at the University of Arizona. As it becomes more widely disseminated through the higher education community at large, the researchers expect the curriculum and VR classroom technology will transcend the boundaries of discipline, institution, and geography.

“An online open platform will exist where people can download components and courses, and all of it is framed by the technology, so that these experiences and research can be shared over this virtual reality component,” Randy Burd, principal investigator for Nano 2020, said. “It’s technologically distinct from what exists now.”


In a custom-developed virtual reality classroom complete with a laboratory, nanoscale objects come to life thanks to the power of science data visualization. Courtesy of Arlene Islas, Stacy Pigott, and Drew Bourland/University of Arizona.

Photonics Handbook
GLOSSARY
nanophotonics
The study of how light interacts with nanoscale objects and the technology of applying photons to the manipulation or sensing of nanoscale structures.
Research & TechnologyeducationAmericasUniversity of ArizonananonanophotonicsnanoscaleBiophotonicslife sciencesNano 2020agriculturevirtual realityonline education

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