Research & Innovation

Creating Connection

Stevens professor pilots virtual reality program to improve online classroom engagement. 

Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz had plenty of arguments over the invention of Calculus, but it’s safe to say neither of them saw this coming.

While not inventing a new form of mathematics, Thomas Lonon, a Stevens School of Business teaching associate professor, is pioneering the way it is taught by using virtual reality in the online sections of his “Stochastic Calculus for Financial Engineers” course.

It was a demonstration of CRISPR gene editing in virtual reality at the Stevens Division of Information Technology's XR (Extended Reality) Lab Faculty Showcase that first sparked the idea of adding a third dimension to the traditional online experience and increasing his students’ connection to the material and the University as a whole.

“I don’t really have any use for demonstrating how DNA was changing in my classroom, however, to be a remote student and feel like you are part of a class, that's something that can be done with VR headsets,” Lonon explained.

Lonon needed only a short walk up the hill to find the tools, resources and expertise for his experiment. The XR Lab, housed in the lower level of the Samuel C. Williams Library, works to implement virtual, mixed and augmented reality technology into the learning experience across the Stevens campus.

For example, chemical engineering students were recently able to use a VR tool to visualize and examine crystal structures in a three-dimensional environment to aid their understanding of how the parts of the structure relate to one another.

Lonon’s proposal engaged the more social aspect of the technology.

“This is the first time the XR Lab has used this technology in a class setting like this,” said Valerie Dumova, senior instructional designer and technologist in the XR Lab, said. “The idea is people who normally can't meet in a physical space can come together in this social VR space and interact with each other. It enables his students to feel like they're together, so they feel more engaged and more connected to Stevens, to their classmates and to their instructor.”

The XR Lab team and Lonon set out to find the right hardware and software platforms to achieve their vision. At the start of the semester, each student was provided with a Meta Quest 2 headset in order to attend the class in the VR space in a program called Engage. The “classroom” is also available in a two-dimensional space via a computer.

Lonon records his in-person lectures every Thursday and makes them available for the online classes. Students are expected to have watched the lesson and come prepared when they enter the VR classroom on Monday. Those sessions are now able to be focused on working through problem sets together in a much more dynamic way than a Zoom meeting.

“I have to say for me, it's a lot more engaging,” said Ethan Li, a senior quantitative finance major from West Windsor, New Jersey said. “I’m a lot more willing to go up and write on the whiteboards that we can access and at least try the question. I'm getting a lot more out of the class as opposed to a regular online class.”

As with any new program and technology, not everything has been perfect. Writing complex equations has been a challenge, but the idea of creating a more dynamic and cooperative environment has certainly been a success.

Professor Thomas Lonon wearing a VR headset and holding the hand controllers.“I'm still having to find the point where my expectations meet reality and work in that space,” Lonon said. “But one of the coolest things happened while going over a problem set. One of the students asked a question about something, and another student asked a follow-up question. The first student said, ‘Oh, I actually can answer that. I understood what we were just talking about. Let me see if I can explain it to you.’ And I was like, ‘Perfect. Go! Go!’”

As the technology becomes more accessible and new platforms and applications reach the market, the potential to amplify the learning experience grows exponentially.

“Our goal is always to pilot new things, try new things, test new things,” Dumova said. “We would be happy to collaborate with any instructors who are interested in exploring social VR. Some instructors may want to build worlds and content themselves and some may want to collaborate with students to build content. For example, a history instructor could create content that would enable the class to go on a field trip to Ancient Rome, or an instructor could import models of different types of machines or engines that they could explore in three dimensions. The possibilities of what you can do using social VR are almost endless.”

While a trip back to the 1660s to settle the Newton and Leibniz controversy once and for all would be fun, for now, Lonon is more focused on making sure he continues to evolve with the technology to provide his students the best experience.

“Getting that feedback in real-time is really beneficial for the students doing this, and I would love to have more of that,” Lonon said. “Moving forward, a class of 20 students could have groups of three or four each working on the problems where they have a giant board or space to collaborate, share ideas and critique each other. I would do a tour of the room and then bring everyone together at the end. I think that that is the perfect way to run the sessions.”