Mizzou Engineering helps provide immersive weather experience

April 03, 2023

Three people using virtual reality inside CAVE facility
Eric Aldrich, center, served as the content expert on the project. Fang Wang, left, and her team were charged with the programming and development of the virtual reality system. Xinhao Xu and his students were tasked with planning and designing the instructional elements.| Photo by Logan Jackson

By Logan Jackson | College of Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources

An exciting collaboration between three University of Missouri experts is opening the door to a unique learning opportunity for environmental sciences students, specifically those interested in studying weather.

Eric AldrichFang Wang and Xinhao Xu have combined their expertise in meteorology, virtual and augmented reality, and mixed-reality-based learning environments to help students gain a deeper understanding of mid-latitude cyclones, which are complicated systems that help drive most of the stormy and severe weather in the continental United States.

Students in Synoptic Meteorology II were recently able to step inside a 3D virtual reality model built to showcase how the air moves within mid-latitude cyclones. The immersive experience, offered through the MU College of Engineering’s CAVE facility, allowed students to visualize how the system forms and eventually slows. The CAVE facility was made possible by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, and Wang and Xu are part of the grant as senior personnel.

“This has been the perfect partnership,” said Aldrich, an assistant teaching professor in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR). “All three of us are focused on providing exceptional educational opportunities for students at Mizzou. This technology is a game changer for our program.”

Wang is an associate teaching professor and director of the Collaborative Research Environments for Extended Reality (CREXR) Lab in the College of Engineering. Xu is an assistant professor in the School of Information Science and Learning Technologies and director of the Technology to Enhance Learning Lab (TELL), part of the College of Education and Human Development.

This isn’t the first project the trio have worked on together. A few years ago they developed an app, MeteorologyAR, which helped students identify different types of clouds.

“That project really showed how we could use technology to enhance what our students were learning,” Aldrich said. “I’m thrilled that we have had an opportunity to collaborate again.”

The idea for a learning aide of this nature came to Aldrich last year as he was explaining mid-latitude cyclones to his Synoptic Meteorology II class. While he was able to share plenty of information about the system, students were having a difficult time latching onto the material.

“I had to go over the process three to four times because it’s a very tough concept to grasp, especially when you’re trying to explain it in 2D,” Aldrich said. “I was looking for a way to better explain the 3D motions within the system. You can’t just jump into a cloud or see the wind, but that’s the type of modeling I needed to showcase.”

Aldrich reached out to Wang and Xu to see if there was an opportunity to create a virtual reality experience that would allow students to essentially step into a cloud. The project sounded like a perfect one for both of them.

“I have been working on virtual reality education and training projects for a while,” Wang said. “After CAVE became available through an NSF grant, I’ve spent some time with my students developing prototype projects and investigating what CAVE can do. It became clear to us that CAVE is best used for a subject or topic that will benefit from a collaborative learning environment, especially an abstract concept that could utilize a 3D visual experience.”

Aldrich soon met with Wang, Xu and their students to teach them all about mid-latitude cyclones so that they could begin the process of developing a virtual reality program. They had a prototype together by May 2022, just a couple months after the initial discussion. Some back-and-forth and fine tuning followed and the group came together in October to conduct more internal testing. Environmental sciences students officially stepped into the CAVE in February.

“It is one of the most satisfying parts of the project – to see students get exposed to new technology and new methods of teaching and learning,” Wang said. “It was great to see them using the new programs we developed and their high engagement level during the sessions.”

“I was so impressed with how quickly this program came together,” Aldrich added. “I had to teach the entire group extremely complicated meteorological terminology and systems in a short period of time. They jumped right in ran with everything. It was incredible.”

Aldrich served as the content expert on the project. Wang and her team were charged with the programming and development of the virtual reality system. Xu and his students were tasked with planning and designing the instructional elements of the project, such as how to sequence the materials, how to provide visual and textual aids, and when and where to add environmental sounds.

“I would say this is a dream trio working together,” Xu said. “Eric provides all the subject matter resources and guides the learning content. Fang and her team make the project alive with programming and technical support. My team and I brought subject matter and technology together using expertise in instructional design and educational research. It wouldn’t have been a success without the seamless work among all three parties.”

Before coming over to test the program, students sat in a lecture with Aldrich focused on mid-latitude cyclones. When they arrived to try out the program, they were given a pre-test asking about their previous virtual reality experience. After stepping into the CAVE and learning about the subject matter, Xu and his students provided another test for the environmental sciences students and also conducted interviews with each student.

“This was a very typical educational research study design,” Xu said. “We want to collect as much data as possible. Our philosophy with research is to offer practical solutions to solve real-world problems. With content like this, it’s the perfect opportunity to do just that. You can’t fly into a cloud to study it – but you can with this technology.”

Xu was interested to see how the students would react to having a 3D virtual reality model to use for complicated subject matter. He said several of the post-test questions were designed to see if students were more confident in their understanding of the material after using the program.

“We’re not trying to replace anything; I love classroom teaching,” Xu said. “We’re just researching these complementary pieces to see if we can add anything to the learning experience. We have the technology, so let’s use it to help students learn and offer them different perspectives. Plus, many students are visual learners, and these type of add-ons can be very valuable.”

Several students who participated in the experience were impressed with the program, showcasing promising early results that the aid was valuable.

“Weather is very 3D, so the ability to maneuver around a system was incredible,” said Drew Smith, a junior environmental sciences student. “I felt like it really enhanced what we had already learned about mid-latitude cyclones. I’m a visual learner, so it was nice to be part of this and I’m excited to see where this goes.”

“It’s an exciting time to be studying atmospheric science at Mizzou,” added Max Shaw, a junior environmental sciences student. “The department has really transformed a lot since my freshman year, and I really appreciate the focus on bringing new experiences for the students. It’s cool to see how we’ve grown.”

Aldrich said the possibilities are truly limitless when it comes to virtual reality weather opportunities.

“There are so many meteorological applications out there, from super cell thunderstorms to tornadoes,” Aldrich said. “Even more simplistic topics like how a raindrop turns into a snowflake would be interesting to see. I think there is a ton of potential here to explore. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

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