Each week, staff writer Paul Wood interviews a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet RALUCA ILIE, a professor in the University of Illinois’ Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering who is transforming the way her students learn by using virtual reality to help them better understand complex electrical-engineering concepts.
What made you interested in this field?
I was always curious about how things work. As a kid, I loved observing the world around me and asking grown-ups questions, and there was something very satisfying about getting an answer. But often enough, that answer is not the end. It brings up another question, and then another. This is what makes science and discovery exciting. And as you go on this path that leads from one question to another, your knowledge and understanding grows.
Is imagination part of the process?
Scientific training gives you an amazing toolbox to imagine systems and phenomena that you could not otherwise know about. If you pursue this professionally, you get to ask questions no one asked before, and then carve out more knowledge, more truth about the world. And though we don’t know it all, the more we work together and explore questions together, the more the world and nature opens up to us. As a scientist, you get to feed your curiosity every day, and as an educator, you get to bring that love of discovery to others.
Tell us what’s new about the virtual-reality laboratory.
The lab lets you learn complex content in an experience that is fun and engaging, like a video game. What makes video-games fun is that you build and control the experience yourself. This first lab we developed at the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department came from the challenge of teaching electromagnetism to engineering students. Electric and magnetic phenomena are all around us, especially when we think of technology, but we cannot see or feel them. And so, when electrical-engineering students learn about it, it is all very abstract and mathematical.
Visualizing and experiencing the phenomena you learn about has been long recognized as a key for effective learning. For example, if you want to study aerodynamics, you can build a wind tunnel, you can color fluids and see how they move. But electromagnetic phenomena are largely invisible or too tiny to sense in that way.
Instructors cannot show students the electric and magnetic field, or even an electric charge.
Who else is on your team?
I teamed up with Professor Eric Shaffer from the Department of Computer Science. He is teaching the virtual-reality class. Students in his class work on the development of the VR labs. Professor Erhan Kudeki from ECE has also been a strong supporter of the idea from the beginning and has been instrumental to this project. We also have collaborators from across campus: from the physics department, Carle College of Medicine and the College of Education.
How are you using immersive learning experiences?
In the VR lab, learning is self-directed. As a student, you can actually play with those things yourself. You can move charges about and see the shape of the fields they create. You get to choose how to move them, and basically, you get to explore and build knowledge individually, at your own pace and in a way that works best for you. And so this virtual environment doesn’t just let you do experiments without the time and trouble of setting up experiments; it also lets you do something that is not possible in a physical lab.
Have you found fun ways of introducing some of these concepts?
The VR labs are designed to be a fun experience from the very basic level. They are interactive, engaging and very pleasing visually. Since you as a learner have freedom to move things around and see the effects, learning happens naturally in a playful and enjoyable way.
You’re working with students across many disciplines. What are some of those programs?
Part of the software is developed by computer-science students enrolled in a virtual-reality class taught by Shaffer. We also have electrical-engineering students with strong computational skills that are also developing the software. You can think of them as video-game developers. This goes to show what a strong educational impact this project has. Students get to have a hands-on experience in developing a real product, and that product is used by their peers.
Have you ever made any mistakes you’ve been able to learn from?
I often tell my students, if you are not making mistakes, it means that you are doing something that is too easy. Doing new things always involves making mistakes. If we are not challenged, we are not learning. In developing the VR lab, we get feedback from learners, and this feedback is key, as it keeps us informed as to what needs to be improved.
What’s in the future?
Teaching and learning have already shifted from the paradigms that were in place 10, 20 years ago. Teens and young adults are consumers of technology, and this drives both industry and educational institutions to build rich learning environments. We are already in this era of constant change. We may see more and more augmented reality, wearable technology and better human-machine interfaces. This will not only alter the way we live but also transform the way we learn. Education and learning would be continually transformed by these developments, and we at the UI are taking part in leading this trend.
TECH TIDBITS ... from RALUCA ILIE
Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? I follow other scientists, thinkers and science-focused agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation.
Book or Kindle? What are you reading right now? Book. I am reading “Passionate Minds” by David Bodanis. It documents the partnership and love between Emilie du Chatelet (a physicist and mathematician) and Voltaire.
Do you have any wearable electronics? No.