Virtual reality technology lets U of S engineering students try and fail

Engineering students at the University of Saskatchewan are using virtual reality technology to test their bridge-building skills.

3D bridge-building exercise lets students assemble trusses to test their strength

Engineers have to be certain of the strength of structures such as Saskatoon's new Traffic Bridge long before construction begins. There is no room for error. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

When it comes to engineering, there's no room for error, because if a major structure such as a bridge fails, the results can be catastrophic. even deadly.

But the engineering school at the University of Saskatchewan has found a way to let students try and fail.

"It's like a construction site except it's virtual, not real," said Sean Maw, the Huff chair in innovative teaching at the college of engineering.

The college, Maw says, is using virtual reality technology that allows students to enter a computer-generated 3D bridge-building exercise, put the trusses together and then test their strength.

"We actually have a game portion of the of the Truss VR software where a truck drives across a bridge that you've constructed and you can see the changing tensions and compressions in the two force members as it drives across the bridge," said Maw.

"If your bridge isn't good enough it'll collapse and the truck will explode."

Building a bridge from the comfort of a classroom seems like a tough thing to do. Engineering students at the University of Saskatchewan are giving it a try. They're doing it through a program called Truss VR... which stands for virtual reality. Sean Maw is one of the key players in its creation. He spoke with Saskatoon Morning's Jennifer Quesnel. 6:48
Sean Maw, the Huff chair in innovative teaching at the college of engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, is one of the driving forces behind the use of virtual reality technology and software. (CBC)

When real-life failure is not an option

Previously, engineering students would have to test their theories about truss strength through detailed mathematical calculations, leaving little room for play. Maw says the new technology changes that.

In certain areas where it's difficult, impossible or dangerous to do [testing] in real life, this is the future of education.- Sean Maw

"The computer takes care of the math and then the students get a feel for how a bridge behaves in certain situations, and it's very interactive.

"You can focus on manipulating the forces that you are applying to the bridge and seeing what it does visually, and that's a much better, more effective learning experience."

Maw says the success they've seen in engineering has attracted interest from other academic disciplines at the university including kinesiology, medicine and geography. The university is also working to begin sharing the Truss VR system with other engineering schools in Canada.  

Virtual technology will never replace real teachers, Maw says, while adding that in some cases it might be the only way.

"In certain areas  where [tests are] difficult, impossible or unsafe to do in real life, this is the future of education," Maw said.


with files from Saskatoon Morning