ICCE-21 Short Paper - Western Michigan University

Developing Virtual Laboratory for Materials Education
P. Ari-Gur1, P. Thannhauser1, R. Rabiej1, P. Ikonomov1, J. Johnston2, and D. Litynski1
Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI, 49008, USA
Muskegon Community College, Muskegon, MI, USA
[email protected]
Abstract. For most engineering students, the
sophomore-level materials science class is the
only one in the materials field. Topics like
elementary crystallography are of critical
importance in the course. However, due to the
high cost of instrumentation, radiation safety
issues, and time constraints, topics such as X-ray
diffraction and electron microscopy could be
introduced to the hundreds of sophomore
students in this class in a lecture-only format. To
address the need for laboratory experience, we
developed an interactive virtual laboratory that
can run on multiple computers simultaneously,
generating individualized data. In the lab, the
students get safety training, run experiments,
collect data, analyze their results and write a
background, experimental description, results,
analysis and conclusions. In addition, the virtual
lab is used by K-12 students in STEM recruiting
1. Introduction
There is a growing need for engineers in the US
workforce; however, there has not been any
significant increase in engineering degrees
awarded1. Engineering is viewed by many as a
very demanding curriculum. Moreover, most of
the students who begin their undergraduate
education in pre-engineering do not complete
their degree2,3. Many students could become
successful if teaching methods would better fit
their different learning styles4,5. In engineering,
the incorporation of laboratory experience
greatly contributes to the understanding of
principles learnt in the classroom.
Our goal is to engage the students in
engineering investigations by means of a virtual
laboratory, and to spark interest, excitement and
the concomitant retention of engineering
The virtual laboratory that we have
developed, addresses many of the issues which
make it difficult to conduct a physical lab. They
include replacing expensive equipment with a
simple laptop and very long experiments with
just a few minutes runs in the virtual laboratory
(VL) environment. As Felder and Silverman5
conclude, “the virtual laboratory is used as an
alternative mechanism for achieving the same
learning outcomes as in the corresponding
physical laboratory.”
2. Development of virtual experiments
We followed several principles in the virtual lab
1. The experiments have to simulate the
physical lab experience.
2. They also need to be interactive, and
keep the student active.
3. Students should be able to conduct the
experiments with no assistance.
4. The experience should be fun and
5. The virtual lab can be run on a laptop
(i.e., no need for specialty virtual reality
2.1 Tools used in modules development. We
used different engines to create the virtual
experiments. For example, the X-ray diffraction
experiment was developed in LabView6. After
the mandatory X-ray training (that includes
radiation safety), the student takes the quiz to
demonstrate sufficient knowledge to run the
Figure 1 shows a small part of the X-ray
simulation module. After the student dons a
radiation badge, the machine is turned on (a)
shows the machine just before it is turned on,
and (b) shows the X-ray “on” position. The
settings (e.g., voltage and current) are simulated.
Then the rest of the run parameters are set (step
size, dwell time, and 2 range). Running the
virtual experiment creates a diffraction pattern
(Figure 2), and the student uses a ‘simulated’
ICDD database to identify the phases present.
The written report requirements are very similar
to those for any physical lab.
into either EON Virtual Reality8 or Unity3D9 (a
game design engine)
3. Conclusions
Virtual laboratory experiments were developed.
They were successfully tested with university
students, as well as with community college and
high-school students.
This work was made possible through NSF
grant number 1140348 and two generous
grants from Hewlett Packard: Technology for
teaching and HP Catalyst.
Many thanks to numerous people that
participated in the development and collaborated
with us; Special thanks to Emiliya Ikonomova,
Marwa Hassan, Renee’ Schwartz, Richard
Wood, Abraham Barouch, Spencer Hoin, Tyler
Bayne, and Shilpa Lakhanpal
Fig. 1. Virtual X-ray diffraction experiment (a)
before the machine is in the “on” position and (b)
after the X-rays switch is on, with the power light lit
in red, and the voltage and current are set for the run.
The simulated patterns generated during the run
of the virtual experiment were generated by
PowderCell6 and imported into LabView.
Simulted B19 phase of
NiTiCu shape memory alloy
Fig. 2. X-ray diffraction simulated pattern of the B19
phase of NiTiCu shape memory alloy.
2.2 Other lab modules
Other modules were developed using 3D
modeling software and importing the models
1. Col Jason James Denney, USAF,
Priming the Innovation Pump: America Needs
More Scientists, Engineers, and Basic Research,
A Publication of the Defense Acquisition
University. January 2011. Retrieved May 22,
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(1997). Talking about leaving:
undergraduates leave the sciences, Boulder, CO:
Westview Press.
3. Smith, T. (2001). The retention and
graduation rates of 1993-1999 entering science
mathematics, engineering, and technology
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Norman, OK: Center for Institutional Data
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Cocking, R.; Eds., How People Learn: Brain,
Mind, Experience, and School (National
Academy Press, Washington, DC, 2000).
5. Felder, R.M. and Silverman, L.K.
(1998). Learning and teaching styles in
engineering education. Engr. Educ., 78 (7), 674681.
6. LabVIEW System Design Software
7. PowderCell
8. eon reality http://www.eonreality.com
9. Unity3D game design engine