When I first arrive at the mine, I’m travelling in a personnel carrier with other miners, learning the ins and outs of mine safety. In the next instant, we’re underground, and I’m getting an orientation on standard procedures.
This is my first time going underground, and, thanks to the new virtual reality (VR) learning facility at Northern College, it’s just about as close as I can get to the real thing.
Launched in May, the Timmins facility will be used to train students in the college’s signature array of trades programs: construction, maintenance and electricity; industrial, mechanic and millwright; heavy duty equipment technician; general carpentry; and automotive technician.
“The more we progress, the more it’ll be used,” said Diane Leblond, program officer with the Northern Training Division. “It’s just a matter of implementing it into the existing curriculum and finding ways to use it creatively.”
There are four 3-D stations, two 4-D stations, and 10 portable stations in total. The technology consists of multi-lensed, 3-D video cameras, swivel chairs, monitors and virtual reality glasses, in addition to hand sets and toggles that can be used to manipulate equipment to perform a function.
The goal is to provide students with experiential learning in their chosen career, putting them in a simulation that closely mimics a real-life scenario before they ever have to step foot in a mine, repair heavy equipment, or build a house, Leblond noted.
To develop the underground mine experience, Northern teamed up with Primero Mining Corp., which operates the Black Fox Complex in Matheson, using a 360-degree camera to film underground and on surface, and then transferred the video to a VR experience.
“There are going to be a lot of uses for that, exposing people to underground experiences before they go into training, during training, a variety of different ways,” Leblond said. “It feels like you’re going underground.”
For interactive programs, such as with the heavy equipment operator simulation, students find themselves in a field where a loader is broken down; using hand-held controllers that are represented by tools onscreen, students have to figure out the problem, get the parts they need, and fix it.
Some programs also offer 4-D experiences. In the heavy equipment operator simulation, students can wear a vest that will shake if they “crash” the vehicle, while in the mining program, air, heat or cold can be blown through the room to replicate the conditions a miner experiences underground.
The idea of adding virtual reality to Northern’s programming came from faculty who could see the benefits to students, said Audrey Penner, vice-president of academic and student success. She believes the applications are “endless.”
“The key now is to have our faculty play with it a little bit so they can generate the ideas of how it would best work in their learning environments,” she said.
“They’re really the ones that would know what is most difficult for students to learn.”
Programs are already in the works for the school’s nursing program: one simulation puts the student inside the human body and takes them on a tour through the bloodstream, while another depicts the human body and requires students to identify all the organs.
Penner suggests other applications, such as the firefighting program, which requires students to consider human life.
“There are training aspects that we could simulate here that would give our students a better exposure to some of the more life-and-death situations they would face without actually risking their lives,” she said. “So that kind of experience is really valuable in simulation.”
Penner also believes VR training could be a way to help distance learners complete their work-integrated learning, even while studying from afar.
Within the next year, the school plans to introduce methods of measuring the readiness of students who learned in virtual reality compared to students who learned using traditional hands-on methods.
Penner suspects there will be little difference, and this could offer a way to bring both types of learners to a more level playing field.
“One of our primary teaching directions is access, so making sure get we education to people, however we do that,” Penner said. “So we need to have a broader philosophy around how we provide some of these experiences, hence the thinking around virtual reality."
Developing new VR programs takes time, and it’s not cheap.
The new facility was funded with $219,000 from the Apprenticeship Enhancement Fund, and Penner said the school will look to access additional funding as the VR programming expands.
The school is aiming to train faculty in things like filming to build capacity internally, and the next step will be to develop augmented reality experiences. Virtual reality training won’t be for every student, but now that the technology is out there,
Penner said Northern wanted students to have the option. Not only is virtual reality more realistic than learning from a textbook, but it’s a lot more fun.
“It’s so amazing how your mind instantly moves into that realm,” Penner said. “You’re in the environment and you’re engaged.”