Into the ViterbiVerse – USC Viterbi



In the middle of the white, clean deck room floats a wide roped parachute holding a collection of props: a broom, a tricycle, a drum and a slice of chocolate cake. A hand reaches out to grab a chocolate cake while onlookers ask: what kind of chocolate cake is this? where is this room

The answers are “anything” and “anywhere.”

In Elisabeth Arnold Weiss’s Improv for Engineers lessons, part of her advanced writing course, students use virtual reality to visualize and enhance their imaginations in improvisational exercises.

“[VR] is a facilitator. It’s an accelerator,” said Weiss, an associate professor of the practice of technical communication at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “It’s something that can go right to the heart of learning faster.”

Just a decade ago, Weiss introduced improvisation to her 340 writing course for advanced engineers by teaming up with Hollywood comedians and improvisational theater faculty from the USC School of Dramatic Arts to provide an improvisational exercise where students learn how to become more effective and confident . communicators.

Now she has added another twist to impromptu sessions. Starting in the fall of 2022, Arnold Weiss put VR into them. She did so because she believed that “engagement and experimentation are the best ways for engineers to learn”, even if it involves learning soft skills.

“Teaching and learning in a traditional classroom can become procedural and transactional,” she said. “But when we get into this virtual space, there’s something else.

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VR and improvisation

During Weiss’s improv classes, eight students don headsets and enter VR, participating in fast-paced activities that cultivate innovation, forward thinking, and even communication crisis management. Meanwhile, the rest of the class watches the interaction live and waits for their turn with the headset.

“Even the instructors don’t have pre-set expectations. You know it’s designed to open things up. Not to shut them down,” Weiss said.

Students love it.

Leyu Xu, a senior computer game student, said he really enjoyed demonstrating the products to his classmates and learning how to navigate the otherworldly physics of the VR environment.

“The introduction of VR really expands the spatial boundaries of the classroom and frees students from the confines of the classroom,” Xu said. “It helped me visualize how to communicate in a professional environment and strengthened my courage to communicate despite my fear of audiences.”

Why VR?

A self-described “tech evangelist,” Weiss believes in the power of technology to “enable human potential.” As an engineering educator for nearly three decades, she read several studies on the benefits of VR before deciding to add it to her classroom. During the pandemic, she came across a research paper describing how video chat communication increased productivity but decreased creativity. She decided to turn to VR to take advantage of this digital productivity while also solving the limits of creativity.

“VR is a technological medium, yet it’s so alive and intimate, which goes against our perception of technology as cold and inhuman,” Weiss said.

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Weiss has been following the development of VR since 2016. It wasn’t until she spoke with her mentee at the time, Leon Huang, BS ’19, that she realized VR’s potential to transform the educational space.

Huang was a visually impaired student studying computer games. The Singaporean military veteran brought a laptop to class equipped with various facilitation tools to help him fill in information he might have missed. Weiss realized that it was a challenge for him to maneuver between desks, chairs, and students in a physical classroom, making it uncomfortable for him to actively participate in improvisational exercises. Weiss’ desire to help her student better engage in improvisational exercises, along with her growing curiosity in VR development, led her to ask Huang a single question: “What do you think about bringing VR into this classroom?”

His response: “Yes, please!” Not only did Huang’s answer give voice to students’ most extreme desire to find more engaging ways to learn, but it also served as a proof of concept for Weiss: VR in the classroom could improve accessibility and participation.

Professor Weiss in action

In 2021, Weiss decided to move forward with VR, even though at the time she had no funding to purchase equipment.

Through a grant from the Engineering Information Foundation, a New York-based engineering education improvement group, Weiss received $24,500 to build his own VR space and purchase a virtual headset.

She then turned to INTERVRSE, a Silicon Beach-based startup that creates immersive metaverse experiences. According to Weiss, it was important to work with a company that was not only local and accessible, but also flexible, responsive and respectful of the educational goal. INTERVRSE designed five custom virtual settings: Campus Landing, Boardroom, Future Classroom, Theater and Hotel Lobby. Each of these spaces had customizable features, meaning students had access to infinite environments and contexts.

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Weiss piloted VR in three improv classes taught by Debra De Liso and Paul Hungerford of the School of Dramatic Arts in her Fall 2022 advanced writing classes. The results exceeded her expectations. Students, Weiss said, are much more engaged in practice and bolder in their creativity. He attributes this to how VR reduces perceived barriers to communication.

“It’s almost like people leave their inhibitions at the door because it’s virtual,” Weiss said. “You’re a little detached from your own identity, your own self-confidence, your own fear of judgment.” It’s freeing up space. You have a greater free flow of thought.”

Steve Bucher, director of the Engineering in Society program, added: “Finding ways to innovate within a writing curriculum can be challenging and the use of theatrical improvisation offers engineering students many opportunities for creativity and discovery. Elisabeth’s use of VR as a way to enrich this experience is a great way to expand its impact.”

Weiss hopes that USC Viterbi will continue its exploration of VR to provide a foundation of learning experiences for other institutions in the future.

“This expands our current boundaries of experiential learning,” she said. “It’s a place that I feel is really ripe for very intense and effective learning.”

Posted on November 22, 2022

Last updated on November 22, 2022


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