Project aims to build strong manufacturing workforce with immersive technology

June 17, 2014

Editor’s note: A version of this article was first published on Penn State News. 

By Mallorie McIlwain

McKEESPORT, Pa. — The Richard King Mellon Foundation recently awarded $392,000 to two researchers at Penn State to build a strong science- and technology-focused (STF) workforce in the state’s Mon Valley region through collaboration and virtual, augmented and mixed reality trainings and tools. 

The two-phase “Immersive upskilling for STF Workers” project will be led by co-primary investigators, Megan Nagel, chancellor and chief academic officer at Penn State Greater Allegheny, and Jessica Menold, Penn State Center for Immersive Experiences (CIE) director and associate professor in the Penn State College of Engineering. 

According to CIE’s website, “The Center for Immersive Experiences (CIE) provides cutting-edge immersive technologies, knowledge and skills to the Penn State community with the goal to create leadership in immersive experiences by advancing the underlying science and integrating it into the academic spectrum through research, education and outreach.” 

Penn State Greater Allegheny, located in McKeesport, serves the Mon Valley region which has seen a loss of industry and population. Together, Penn State Greater Allegheny and CIE will offer training to benefit manufacturers and build technical skills in the workforce. 

“We at the center [Center for Immersive Experiences] are really passionate about working to support, in whatever way we can, using immersive technologies to enable economic growth across Pennsylvania," Menold said. "Specifically, we are excited to use immersive technology, like virtual reality, to train and upskill workers so that we can meet the demands of increasingly complex and demanding manufacturing environments." 

“The ‘Immersive Upskilling for STF Workers’ grant will bring research, scholarly activity and community engagement to a region poised to work with local manufacturers,” Nagel said. “The Mon Valley region will benefit from investment and revitalization, and the training will allow manufacturers to employ a skilled workforce and be competitive on a regional, state and national level.” 

In phase one of this project, Nagel and Menold aim to hold community town halls and workshops with manufacturers to seek input, define barriers or obstacles faced in workshops and get an understanding of interest, engagement and manufacturers’ needs. The team will collect the data co-created from the workshops to formulate a report that will codify the training needs and barriers faced by community members. 

Manufacturers will have the opportunity to experience immersive technology before it is deployed to the workforce.  

“It is a benefit to the researchers [at Penn State] to get an understanding of the needs and develop their technology to meet the needs, connecting to the practitioner,” Nagel said. 

Phase two will assess, via pilot-tests, the ability of these immersive training tools and platforms like virtual and augmented realities to successfully improve workers’ skills in relevant areas, according to the project proposal. The team will collect data of the participants’ baseline performance before engaging in the program and use this to measure how much or how little the trainings improved participants’ performance. 

“We are adopting a co-design model for this effort and are really hoping to both identify and design novel training experiences in close partnership with the communities we are hoping to serve. That means going out and speaking with local communities and manufacturers to understand what their unique needs are,” Menold said. “Then, we will take time to analyze that data and develop immersive training platforms that help workers fill those needs. We will come back out [to the region] to work directly with the community to distribute.” 

The Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, Catalyst Connection and the Franco Harris Pittsburgh Center at Penn State are also involved in supporting this project which will roughly take place over 18 to 24 months. 

“We’ve done our best to rope in key players in the community that we are trying to serve, that way we are not pushing research out but rather are engaging in a mutual co-creation of these platforms. That collaboration is absolutely critical to the proposal,” Menold said. “Our hope is we can continue to find sustainable pathways to promote and continue to develop educational platforms if we find that this is a particularly effective method for training workers.” 

Nagel echoed the sentiment.

“What is being developed in State College is being deployed through the Commonwealth Campus system,” Nagel said. “To me, this is when Penn State is enacting its true land-grant mission. I want to emphasize the powerful partnership between the campus and university to benefit the communities in the state... I view this as a true partnership.” 

 

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“I want to emphasize the powerful partnership between the campus and university to benefit the communities in the state... I view this as a true partnership.” — Megan Nagel, Penn State Greater Allegheny chancellor and chief academic officer, project co-primary investigator