Virtual Reality and Learning by Design: Tools for Integrating Mechanical Engineering Concepts*
The Department of Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University recently began to redesign its introductory courses in mechanical engineering. The objectives of these newly designed courses are to incorporate the "learner as designer" strategy and engage students in real-world applications in order to positively impact student motivation and conceptual understanding of mechanical engineering concepts. To achieve these objectives, the courses are designed to use virtual reality as a tool that integrates the fundamental concepts of design, analysis, and manufacturing. The first implementation of one of these courses afforded an opportunity to study a particular type of "learner as designer" strategy-the "learner as instructional designer strategy." This paper describes the four courses and the impact of the "learner as instructional designer strategy" on students' conceptual understanding of and attitude towards mechanical engineering concepts.
I. INTRODUCTION AND BACKGROUND
A common criticism of the undergraduate engineering curricula is that it does not prepare students to be efficient engineers. Undergraduate engineering students are often taught the theory and the concepts without the opportunity to apply these concepts in real-- world applications and experiences. As a result, many engineering professionals and researchers are calling for reformed curricula that gives students the opportunity to actively apply learned concepts and to "learn-by-doing."
One type of learning strategy promoted by advocates of reformed curricula is the "learner as designer" strategy, which engages students in engineering design, projects throughout the undergraduate curricula. Many educators and researchers1-8 have studied and implemented this strategy with favorable results, given that students have the basic prerequisites and that the course and projects are well structured.
Recently, the Department of Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University (SDSU) began to redesign its introductory mechanical engineering courses in an effort to: 1) incorporate the learner as designer strategy; and 2) positively impact mechanical engineering students' conceptual understanding. To achieve these objectives, the courses were designed to use virtual reality (VR) as a tool that integrates the fundamental concepts of design, analysis, and manufacturing. Furthermore, VR is used to create an arena for constructivism, interactive learning and experimentation with design.
II. ENGINEERING 296 COURSES
These introductory mechanical engineering courses, known as the Engineering 296 (E296) series, were designed to: 1) address the need for exploratory, contextualized learning that gives engineering students a better understanding of basic concepts and 2) increase student motivation to pursue their degree.
The first of these courses-Engineering 296A (E296A) and E296B, debuted in Fall 1998 and Spring 1999, respectively. During this debut, a study (which is discussed later in this paper) was conducted to specifically investigate the "learner as instructional design" strategy. Following the introductory year, E296C and E296D were piloted in Fall 1999 and Spring 2000, respectively. Instructional details of these courses are described in the following sections.
A. Engineering 296A (E296A)-Graphical Communications in Design I
In E296A, students are introduced to two primary applications: 1) proEngineer, a solid modeler used widely in industry, to teach solid modeling, views, drawings, tolerancing, and general design principles; and 2) dVMockup,9 a large scale multi-user environment for rapid inspection of computer designed sets.
In this course, students port proEngineer CAD data sets into a virtual environment and inspect their solid designs in 3D stero with Crystal Eyes immersion hardware and software. …