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Old Dominion U. and Partners Plan Distance Network to Teach Aerospace Concepts

JUNE 7, 2002

Old Dominion University, with the help of a handful of other institutions, is forming a distance-learning project to teach aerospace-engineering concepts to students across the country.

One of the project's goals, administrators say, is to develop virtual-reality technologies and other advanced computer programs to be used as instructional tools. Eventually, a network of aerospace-engineering departments at various colleges and universities will use that technology to teach a new generation of engineers. The lesson structures will vary -- some will be led by professors, while others will be delivered by computer programs.

When the lessons are up and running, they will be managed by professors from Old Dominion and its partner institutions in the project, which include Cornell University, George Mason University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, Syracuse University, the University of Florida at Gainesville, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Ahmed K. Noor, a professor of aerospace engineering at Old Dominion, says that the lessons "would be learning modules in learning areas in which no university courses exist today."

He says a dearth of young talent in the field is driving the program. "We feel that the U.S. aerospace industry faces a shortage of qualified workers with adequate skills to meet the demands of future aerospace activities," he says. Aerospace engineers are coming up with concepts for smart aerospace vehicles that can adapt their shapes and "heal" themselves when damaged, or even predict malfunctions and fix them before they start.

"Unfortunately, the work force is very ill-prepared for working on and advancing these technologies rapidly enough to allow us to realize these future systems in a timely manner," Mr. Noor says.

The project received a $2-million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. John J. Rehder, who is monitoring progress on the project for NASA, says he hopes to see the roles of the various universities defined within a month -- and to see prototype distance-learning programs by the end of the year.

He says that NASA is supporting the project because officials there are interested in "doing something different from the traditional classroom experience." NASA will continue to contribute $2-million to the project every year "for the foreseeable future," he adds.

Old Dominion and its partner institutions have contributed an additional $1-million and are already beginning to work on computer systems for teaching the material.

In some of the lesson plans, students will wear virtual-reality glasses that allow them to see aerospace systems and mechanics, along with animated reproductions of the professor and other students in the class. Mr. Noor says that some of the computer systems will use cameras, mounted on the computer, to recognize the learner and customize the lesson to his or her preferences. Some of the systems will use advanced technology to recognize facial expressions that convey confusion or frustration, and will then prompt the computer system to review material. Prototypes for that technology will be done by the end of the summer, Mr. Noor says.

"This would be highly interactive, with the technologies built into [the programs] being far more sophisticated than the computer-game technologies of today," Mr. Noor says. "Weíre thinking about developing, instead of courses, what we call 'learning modules' and virtual classrooms, which would be very different from the current virtual classrooms, which are merely dumping printed material on the Web."

This article was posted on: June 7, 2002

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