VR in education: An interview with Dr. Peter Dorrington

Peter Dorrington is a Senior Engineering Design Lecture and Researcher at Swansea University. We spoke to him about his experience of using VR in design and bringing Gravity Sketch into the classroom.

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VR in education: An interview with Dr. Peter Dorrington
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Please tell us a bit about yourself – how did you first get into engineering? What led you to teach at Swansea University?

My background is design engineering. I did a Product Design degree initially, then I worked as a design engineer in the industry for a few years, then I did a PhD at Cardiff Business School, linked to how businesses use design-led technologies. Then I worked at a research centre, in Cardiff, which is based around collaborative innovation. I got the opportunity to come to Swansea University as a lecturer and the rest is history. The main theme throughout my career is the common thread of design.

What got you interested in design?

I’ve always loved making things. For my A-level design project, I designed some school tables that actually got made and sold. I approached companies, we made those, and I had some royalties going through university, which was great.  

I read the paper you co-authored, titled “Step away from the CAD Station: A hands-on and immersive approach to second year teaching of Mechanical Engineering Design”. For our listeners, please can you describe the project you undertook?

This is our second year Mechanical Engineering model. I worked with my colleague Dr. Will Harrison and I came on to add a bit of design experience. That module is about teaching our second year engineers mechanical design skills, and brings together all the theory they have learned. Typically they have modules in materials, manufacturing, machine elements, statics etc. . The design module is a chance to take them out of their comfort zone, asking them to bring all their knowledge together for a real design project.

You set them the task of designing a human-powered taxi for an urban environment. What was the process behind coming up with that task?

For mechanical engineering, you typically imagine someone designing a clutch for a car or part of an engine. I come in from the product design background and me and my colleagues asked “what could we do that teaches different skills?” and includes focusing on the end-user. 

Dr Will Harrison got his students to design a bike trailer a few years ago. In a group of five, one student would work on one component, so it’s a team effort that they have to link together for the whole piece. Together, we ended up doing a human-powered taxi, with the aim that it would be big enough to use Gravity Sketch and design it in virtual reality. 

When I was in the industry, I remember working on CAD. I was in a precision aluminium casting company. We would get parts and I would get lost in the scale just by looking at them on the screen. You would look at the minutiae of parts and get lost. So scale was something we wanted the students to focus on. It’s very easy to design something on CAD but it may not work on a human scale.

I met one of my colleagues, Dr Mark Holmes, who is our virtual reality guru. At Swansea University there has been a big push for VR, so it’s serendipitous. He showed me some of the fun VR applications, and he offered for us to try to bring VR into the teaching somehow. Dr. Will Harrison was up for it, so we just went for it.

Was that the first time you were exposed to VR?

My brother-in-law actually has a Playstation VR, so the Christmas before we played some games on that. That was the first time.

If you had come across it from a gamer’s perspective, what were your preconceptions about how it would fit into a designer’s professional workflow?

I didn’t really think about it that way. I’m of the mindset that you should just give things a go. I don’t know if that’s a designers’ mindset, but I’ve noticed that people I’ve worked with have an open mindset. Just give it a go, if it works it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. If it’s going to help our engineers be more creative, that’s a good thing, and fulfills the requirements of our Accreditation body, the IMechE. 

You mentioned bringing out creativity in engineers as one of the key themes of the paper. What’s your experience of the way engineering is taught at the moment? Does it stifle creativity? 

I can only speak from my own experience: there are probably plenty of more product design and engineering courses that focus on creativity, however, in my experience, they tend to be nearer the product design/industrial design end of the spectrum. When I studied engineering it was very theoretical (by necessity), and provided little hands-on design experience; but then I went into a product design degree which was more applied, and had us designing and making our products in the workshop. 

Not all students want to do more creative stuff. Some are more skilled at the mathematical, analytical side, which is great. 

I have noticed some engineering students – not all – are used to solving very specific problems, with clear boundaries. Even friends who are teachers say that the secondary education system teaches them to learn in a more constrained manner, again, this is what I have heard, and experienced; . Students are typically taught to pass exams. And we need to change that. 

The way students have been taught is different to what the industry requires. So how do you develop that creativity? This is what we’re trying to do.

Was the hypothesis that VR could be the bridge, and bring out the innovative side in students, before they go back into CAD?

Absolutely! Because I’ve done that too. You go into CAD and you’re constrained by the tools there. Often you’re time-pressured, so you use the things you’ve got. If you know how to do a circle and extrude it, maybe that’s all you’re going to do. And I can see why – the students have lots of assessments, they want to get them done. 

The thing with VR and Gravity Sketch that I liked, is that it’s just so free! It’s just 3D painting, creating, designing. For our students it’s a massive step away from what they’re used to.

I had one student ask, “why are they trying to teach us to be artists?” And I said, we’re not trying to make you artists or industrial designers. You need industrial designers, and mechanical engineers, and you need design engineers. It’s a spectrum, you need everyone. This is just trying to break some of the constraints and preconceptions of how to work in a discipline. Engineering is a creative discipline! 

I understand the students got the design brief, then did some physical prototyping, then they moved into VR and then to CAD.

That’s correct. We had the project brief, then a lecture, then we had an idea generation session a few weeks after. In the initial session they got into groups and did some brainstorming. They told each other about the research they had already done around human-powered taxis. So there’s some storytelling at the start.

We split the students into two groups and give them post-it notes and Sharpies. You do exercises like “what is the worst possible design?” Then ask, “What’s the best possible design?” The idea is that you come somewhere in the middle. They review everything and from there they do some idea generation. At the end of the first 25 minute session, they should have 25 – 30 ideas. Then they can go and reflect, but they have a starting point.

Then we get them into low-fidelity prototyping, with blue foam, wire and wire cutters. We got them to do some hands-on designing. From the sketches we taught them to do some product design specifications. They do some research like “how many people are going to use this taxi? What sort of weight is it going to be? What is it going to be used for?” In groups of five or six, they then go into the blue foam modelling. That’s one three-hour session.

Then they reflect on that, and then we bring Gravity Sketch in. The point is we’re trying to stop them getting straight into SolidWorks, or another software package, so they can be free and explore.

Did you see any students struggle once they got to virtual reality? Whether that was being confused on how to use it, or thinking “why can’t we go straight to CAD?”

Both. Some were keen to go to CAD. Maybe they wanted the detail, because engineering students are used to having clear detail and a prescriptive process. That comes from the scientific method. Now we’re saying to them, “go for it!” But we try to acknowledge that the process is different.

Out of 230 students, some engage, some don’t. That’s human nature. The ones that do engage, really do, and that’s lovely. The majority get it. It was a mixture. Some were used to gaming, they picked it up really quickly. Some wanted to go to CAD. 

There were a few lead users. What we found was, in the groups, one person really enjoyed it and they would use it more. The others would tend to watch.

What was the best outcome you saw from VR being used in the process?

Being able to sit in that space – spatial awareness. If you’ve got passengers behind you, are you going to be knocking them in the head? Where would the drivetrain go? How high would the canopy need to be? 

I’d like to think that it helped some people try to do a bit more of a creative design. Whereas they might typically want something a bit safer.

What were your overall conclusions? It sounds like it was a successful intervention

I think most of the students enjoyed it. It injected a bit of fun and creativity into the process. Typically they would have been straight onto 3D CAD and been constrained by what they knew how to do. Hopefully now they’ve tried more creative shapes and then they go into CAD labs, and they start with screen captures of more complex shapes in Gravity Sketch. We’ve got tech support to try and help them create these complex shapes. The students are learning better, more detailed CAD skills.

Time was one of the issues. The logistics of setting it up. The first year we had about an hour for set up. The year after, it was a bit easier. We gave them a two-hour session where they just played around. Just learn the software, no pressure, we’re not trying to get any outputs. Then they had another session where they designed a bit more. Then there was an optional session also.

We also had virtual reality cafes. Every Wednesday from 10am until 4pm, anyone could go along and use the software. The keen students would come along and use it a lot. Some even got Gravity Sketch for their home VR sets.

How do you balance the interest in innovation and new tech, and the need to get your students up technical proficiency with something like CAD?

In Mechanical Engineering in the first year, we have modules in CAD. You design parts. One of the projects is designing a glider. We have 200 metres of beach on the campus in Swansea. In the summer, my colleagues run this module. The students made these balsa wood, laser-cut gliders, twe put a rocket in the back and then they fire them. It’s good fun. They are learning CAD skills then, learning how to do SolidWorks, and the engineering drawing standards like BS 8888.

I taught a module in making 3D printers this year. So students make 3D printers in groups as an optional module. They design parts and test them. So they design a foam mount for a racing bike handlebar. And then we test them on a jig, so they actually make the machine, calibrate it, and test it. So it’s the full life cycle.

We make sure they actually have to produce engineering drawings that you could hand to someone in the workshop.

We’ve talked a lot about VR in an educational setting. Do you think it has important implications for design in a professional setting, rather than just an educational tool?

Absolutely! What I would love from Gravity Sketch is, if we could have all of the students immersed in one environment, whilst one of them is drawing, that would be great. That’s my dream.

We’re working on co-sketching and we hope to have it ready very soon!

What we find is that you’ve got one person immersed, and you’ve can see it on the screen. But human nature is that one of them has got their phone out. The really engaged groups, you’ve got one person on the VR, and another has their laptop out and they’re making changes on CAD. So they’re mixing it up. Out of a group of six, you might get two that are a bit distracted. 

For industry collaboration is essential. You can have multiple stakeholders co-creating, one from marketing, one from materials, you can have some users and customers. To be able to look around the iterations would be fascinating. And you can do it from anywhere, so reduce the carbon footprint of the design.

It’s not just that I love new technology, I’m keen that our students have a headstart in these skills going into industry.

Your attitude was “let’s have a go”. Is that an important attitude to have as a design engineer?

Yes. Maybe it’s something I’ve taken for granted over the years. Doing a design degree, like Product Design or Design Engineering, you’re trained in design-led thinking. Colleagues that I’ve worked with who have those backgrounds, do have this open-mindedness.

Maybe I’m just lucky. But that’s what I’m trying to impart to my students. If I can just get my students to take a step back for a moment and think, if you’re building a wind turbine, think about usability, think about the technician who has to go in and fix it. Can they get their spanner in to the back to undo a nut or a bolt. That is still usability. That’s what I try and get across to them. 

What do you think is the most exciting trend in the engineering world at the moment?

In terms of teaching, I would like to see more hands-on and collaborative work. I developed my teaching approach from real-world applications with companies and clinical specialists who I brought together as part of a UK commission research grant. I basically did the same thing I’m doing with my students now. It was all about getting different people into it, over a series of workshops, getting their creativity out, breaking down barriers, trying to solve a problem. 

Collaborative creativity is really important. It’s really hard. Some students don’t really engage. As in real life. In university you can’t force them to engage – they’re adults. But then the other students have to carry the project. 

But I think the future is software tools to help this collaborative design. Spaces to hack up stuff. We’ve got a hack space. Our Programme Director has been very supportive of this. Students can go in on a Wednesday afternoon, they can use 3D printers, they can use laser cutters, they can try stuff, they can make stuff.

That’s something our students want, more hands-on, and I hope we’re going in that direction, but the problem is that we have so many students. More technologies like Gravity Sketch help. I think collaborating, bringing it all together, testing prototypes quickly. Fail fast, develop stuff.

You mentioned things like smart manufacturing, but countering that with the need for engineers to remain creative and playful.

I tested this with the UK commission project. I wanted to try hacking stuff up, because I’d done some research on collaborative innovation and the democratisation of innovation. We got these companies from very different backgrounds together. It was fascinating to see this in application.

We had engineers with decades of experience doing workshops with post-it notes, and they were wary. They were thinking, “our boss is going to ask what we’ve done with this entire day of work” and at the end of the day they figured out why it was important. Their creativity starts to come out again. It’s nothing special that I’m doing, it’s giving them space, giving them an environment where they have permission to play.

I’m involved in the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Centre, looking at pedagogical innovations, so teaching research. We’re lucky that we’ve had the support for virtual reality and using it for teaching. My colleagues are focused on trying new stuff. Because we realise that lecturing 200 students in a lecture theatre –  is it the right way forward? I don’t know. For some it works, for some it doesn’t. But it’s about giving an opportunity for students in groups, in labs, to try something different. It can only be a good thing, especially for companies.

What’s next for using Gravity Sketch as a tool to enhance engineers’ creativity in their education?

Because the students are so used to detailed design, what I would love to see is the next step on from Gravity Sketch, so we can dimension the models a bit more, or maybe bring in a bigger library of stock parts. So it scratches the itch of being a bit more specific for the students, but not too specific. 

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