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Augmented Reality Table Aids Chemical Engineering Experiments

Photonics Spectra
Jun 2018
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The University of Rochester has implemented an augmented reality (AR) platform for its students to further explore chemical engineering.

Students simulate reactions in a chemical plant using an augmented reality tabletop developed in the lab of Andrew White, assistant professor of chemical engineering, at the University of Rochester. Courtesy of University of Rochester photo/J. Adam Fenster.
Students simulate reactions in a chemical plant using an augmented reality tabletop developed in the lab of Andrew White, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester. Courtesy of University of Rochester Photo/J. Adam Fenster.

Using a glass tabletop laden with coffee mugs and popsicle sticks, students rearranged the objects in a recent teaching exercise to simulate reactions in a real-life, sprawling chemical plant. Coffee mugs became virtual 10-m3 plug-flow and continuous stirred-tank reactors. Popsicle sticks served as the virtual pipes that connect them. A nob allowed students to adjust the temperature inside each reactor as it was added to the configuration. QR coding on the bottom of the reactors enabled a camera inside the table to capture each reactor's precise location, and the information was relayed to a computer where the simulations were run. A projector inside the table flashed the results onto the tabletop — all in real time.

"We're trying to use AR as a way to enable new types of STEM undergraduate laboratories that weren't possible before,” said Andrew White, assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester. "What we've done is build a hands-on, tactile, collaborative lab where students can explore putting together multiple reactors at different temperatures and see what effect this has on optimizing a chemical reaction."

Eventually, the table will be connected to U. Rochester's super computer, allowing for even more sophisticated simulations. To assess the effectiveness of the AR table as a teaching tool, a research team conducted an experiment. They videotaped four students doing a task at the table, while a control group of four other students addressed the same task in a classroom, using computers, spreadsheets, and white boards. About 30 minutes into the exercise, the researchers noticed that as the students at the table leaned in to reconfigure the reactors and pipes, they would take action before finishing their sentences.

In other words, they "started reasoning with their bodies," said April Luehmann, an associate professor and director of secondary science education at the Warner School of Education, who is collaborating on the project. "At some point, the need for dialogue and words was transcended. That's great because the table gave the students more resources to communicate, a richer set of literacies. If we're going to prepare chemical engineering students to be part of a knowledge society, they need to be able to negotiate complex, ill-structured tasks. And that's the kind of thing that happens at that table."

Luehmann's team is still analyzing the videos and the pre- and postexperiment surveys and interviews with the students involved in the exercise. The results will help the team refine its methodologies for further assessing the table's effectiveness when it is used as part of a chemical engineering class later this semester.

"Engineering is all about real-world applications," adds Sabrina Westgate, a chemical engineering major from Conway, Mass., who had a chance to use the table. "We learn a lot in the classroom, but to be able to see a visual breakdown like this is really helpful. I think this has a lot of potential to help both students and actual engineers in the field, which is awesome."

BusinessUniversity of Rochesteraugmented realitymaterialsopticsimagingApril LuehmannAndrew WhiteeducationAmericasTech Pulse

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