Immersive virtual reality used in metallurgical engineering education

Pengbo Chu, a Nevada gold mining professor at the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering, and his collaborators recently received a grant to research the design of metallurgy course modules using immersive virtual reality (VR).

Chu is the principal investigator of a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that awarded approximately $850,000 to researchers. Co-Principal Investigators include Sergiu Dascalu (Professor of Computer Science and Engineering), Leping Liu (Professor of Quantitative Methods and Learning Sciences), Li-Ting Chen (Associate Professor of Quantitative Methods and Learning Sciences ) and Ying Yang (assistant professor of chemistry).

A group of people stand on the steps of the Mackay Mines building.  There are three women and two men.
The research group includes Pengbo Chu (top left), Sergiu Dascalu (top right), Ying Yang (bottom left), Leping Liu (bottom middle) and Li-Ting Chen (bottom right ).

Researchers will work together to design and build an immersive virtual reality experience allowing students to better understand a metallurgical process called froth flotation. Researchers from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering will use their engineering skills to build the real ecosystem of virtual reality, and researchers from the learning sciences will bring their educational expertise to develop the tasks and roles that students assume in the world of virtual reality.

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“The primary goal of this project is to give students a better metallurgical engineering learning experience so they can be better prepared with the qualifications required by the emerging critical minerals industry,” Chu said.

Chu said the process the researchers are trying to visualize is complicated. Froth flotation is an important technique in the mineral beneficiation process, which isolates the target mineral (such as critical minerals) from other minerals. Froth flotation is a three-phase mineral separation process that uses chemistry and physics to isolate minerals.

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“It’s a very complicated system,” Chu said. Students often have trouble visualizing it, so Chu reached out to his collaborators to see if they would be interested in developing a new way to teach this process.

Bubbles forming on the surface of a silver liquid.
Bubbles form when minerals undergo froth flotation at a Nevada Gold Mines facility. (Photo courtesy of Pengbo Chu)

Students will be immersed in the world of virtual reality and will each take on different roles in the froth flotation process. The roles chosen by the students, the time it takes them to complete the tasks, and the quality of their work with other students will be analyzed by machine learning and data analysis algorithms, and the results will help researchers to design more personalized VR learning experiences that can be tailored to students’ skills and help them learn more effectively.

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The collaborators plan to design the modules around the perspective of the community of inquiry, which incorporates an instructional presence to guide students, a cognitive presence in which students engage with content, and a social presence in which students engage. engage with each other. One of the few mining-related NSF grants was awarded to the Department of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering for this project. The project will fund three different doctorates. students from three different colleges.

Since mining class sizes are typically very small, the group will share the module for Michigan Technological University students and also provide the simplified modules for Nevada high school students.

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