Overcoming critical skill gaps in residential and online STEM education via novel immersive, industry-aligned simulated environments

Project: Research project

Project Details


Researchers at Pennsylvania State University propose to create and utilize 3D virtual reality (VR) environments in engineering settings that immerse learners in complex simulation models representing a real-world situation instead of well-defined problems with existing solutions. By partnering with a simulation software company and industry consultants, the project will generate education modules aligned with industry needs and provide novel model-based systems for engineering education. The proposal also intends to bring this technology to a variety of learners (online and residentials, graduate, four- and two-year college, and self-learners). The project goals are to address (1) the paucity of scientific evidence regarding novel learning environments enabled by immersive simulations in STEM education and (2) the lack of evidence regarding the contribution of virtual reality (versus use of simulations on a 2D display) to STEM education. The project will help to mitigate geographical barriers that prohibit contextualized learning for students, companies' reluctance to provide access to their facilities and data, and logistical constraints that prohibit in-person site visits. The project also advances the frontiers of problem-based learning (PBL) and enables teaching and learning of relevant workforce skills.

The research design is framed by an information processing approach to learning theory, constructivism theory, self-determination theory, and adult learning theory. Data will be collected from students enrolled in existing online and resident courses for graduate and professional students at Pennsylvania State University. The assessment plan enables comparison of traditional vs. immersive simulation in project-based learning in resident and online delivery formats . Formative and summative assessments will be used to test the hypotheses and investigate (1) the effectiveness of immersive simulation PBL and how its effectiveness may vary for online vs. resident students and across graduate, professional, four-year, and two-year college levels; (2) whether the use of virtual reality alters the effectiveness of PBL via simulations for learning critical skills; (3) whether learners' demographics, personality type, prior preparation, motivation, and engineering identity can help predict learning and workplace performance using predictive analytics; and (4) the relationship between usage/navigation and skill development using video analytics and analyses of recorded virtual site visits. By developing this environment and comparing it to in-class PBL instruction in a similar course, the researchers hope to better understand the role of virtual and immersive environments on student outcomes. The research responds to the need for properly trained workers to fill jobs created by emerging technologies and to the growing need for innovative approaches to STEM education and workforce development during crises that mandate social distancing.

The project is funded by the EHR Core Research program that supports fundamental research focused on STEM learning and learning environments, broadening participation in STEM, and STEM professional workforce development.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date6/15/205/31/23


  • National Science Foundation: $831,276.00


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