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Southern Illinois U Helping Build Virtual Aircraft Mechanics Training

An Illinois university is co-developing virtual reality software to help students learn aviation maintenance. The project is a partnership among three entities: the Aviation Technologies program at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale; workforce development organization Man-Tra-Con; and TRANSFRVR, which develops simulation-based training. The work is being funded through part of a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor's Delta Regional Authority.

The university is providing the training curriculum. Content will be delivered through the Oculus headset and hand controllers.

"What we are doing is developing a whole library of virtual reality simulations that students in our program can use to help with training of the hands-on skills that are required for an aviation maintenance technician," said Karen Johnson, associate professor in the SIU Department of Aviation Technologies, in a statement. "While these are in no way intended to replace the real world, hands-on experience, they are a stepping stone or bridge between what you would learn in the classroom and coming into the hangar."

Johnson referred to the VR training as a "risk-free" zone where skills can be practiced without injury or embarrassment.

"For a student who has never been exposed to these types of skills and content, it can be intimidating to try this in front of peers," she explained. "With VR, it's one-on-one, by themselves and if they mess up, they're not really messing up."

She noted that she expected the VR software to serve as a recruiting tool to the aviation field. The system is already being used on a trial basis at several high schools.

"Any of the area high schools that have a career and technical education program can use these simulations in their programs as well. It may be just like as an introductory tool to the profession, but it also is a good recruitment tool for [the university], to show these students some of the career paths and to introduce them to how to maintain aircraft. Kids actually get to see it rather than just hear someone talking about it," Johnson said.

Kathy Lively, CEO of Man-Tra-Con, said she anticipated the new technology helping build the region's economy and keep graduates closer to home.

"There is an increased industry demand, even right here at the Southern Illinois Airport," said Lively. "Our goal is that these might help a person be ready to go to work with some of the employers that are coming on site. We hope some of these students will stay here upon graduation and that we can help combat 'brain drain' for our region. This will give them opportunities to stay here."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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