Dancing with Steel Girders

2014 TIP Winning Innovation, Dancing with Steel Girders: Interacting with 3-D Representations of Buckling Columns in Virtual Reality.




Traditional methods of teaching structural engineering are static, making it difficult for students to visualize and appreciate how complex spatial arrangements change when subjected to varying circumstances. When 3-D objects are depicted in 2-D spaces like screens, boards, or lecture notes, students have no opportunity to reconfigure the models at will. Even when working with 3-D physical structures in a controlled, laboratory environment, it can be difficult, costly, and dangerous to demonstrate limit states, especially those associated with compression members and connections.
By contrast, digitized models in a virtual reality (VR) environment lend themselves to an immersive, interactive experience. Students climb or fly around a model, discovering the size and extent of important features. Instead of seeing just a few 2-D sketches of flexural or torsional buckling, students can quickly “dance” with several different columns undergoing various buckling modes. By discussing with an instructor what they are observing, students identify key aspects that affect the design of column members.
In fall 2013, 24 of 47 students in CEE 413, Design of Metal Structures, retook a midterm exam question on buckling immediately after spending 10 minutes in the VR model described above. Twelve students who had initially scored 8 or less (out of 10) raised their scores.