How Virtual Reality Became a Reality at COM

March 26th, 2021 - 8:55am

Virtual reality oil changeWho knew an oil change would lead to technological transformation that altered the course of College of Marin’s (COM) Automotive program?

Even before the pandemic, COM automotive faculty and department chair Ron Palmer and Career Services Program Coordinator Alexander Jones were determined to create virtual reality (VR) technology for their students. They knew VR could catapult students to successful high-paying careers, significantly impacting people’s lives and the community.

Because they were unable to find a commercial VR product, Palmer, Career Education instructor Mark Barrall, and automotive faculty were busy creating their own VR program. Then, in March 2020, all courses moved online.

With COVID cases drastically increasing, Palmer and Barrall shifted their innovative spirit into “overdrive.” They realized the imminent need to integrate VR technology into their programs to safely provide their students with essential hands-on training.

Palmer and Barrall engaged Alex Jones who had been researching commercial vendors. However, these vendors couldn’t customize their product or were too expensive.

At this point, Jones remembered meeting Bharanidharan Rajakumar at a conference a few years earlier. In 2017, Rajakumar founded a VR company, TRANSFR, with the philosophy of providing training simulations to help faculty members prepare students for jobs available in their communities.

TRANSFR demonstrated the vast potential of VR while working with Alabama’s workforce agency, AIDT, in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and Mazda Toyota Manufacturing. Pilot projects showed that trainees were more efficient, corrected errors more quickly, and reported a higher feeling of confidence compared to those who used traditional learning methods. In fact, 75 percent of users preferred VR training to traditional training. Initial employment results were also extremely encouraging. 100 percent of trainees were offered and placed into jobs, and 93 percent of them were retained six months later.

COM’s Strong Workforce Committee and administrators realized the potential of what VR could bring to their students.

“It’s usually in unprecedented times like these you see real innovation spring forward,” stated Alina Varona, COM Dean of Workforce Development and Career Education. “Sometimes practices and policies that emerge out of necessity turn out to be the most student-centered and deeply promising approaches. It’s definitely a bright spot for our students and a source of pride for the College.”

Palmer and Barrall began working with TRANSFR instructional designers to develop 12 basic VR auto training modules for an auto fundamentals class in summer 2020. The first being an oil change as a good introduction for students to the technology.

Palmer, Barrall, and TRANSFR were on a fast-track. “What we originally created was developed in six weeks and our students were the first to do the trial run on it. Occasionally, students found errors to correct. TRANSFR could see which student had the issue and how far they progressed before they got stuck so they could fix the program quickly.” Palmer stated.

Each module takes around 15 minutes to complete. The immersive experience includes a digital coach that guides and encourages students through mastering essential skills, with each module starting with essential safety lessons. TRANSFR designers used feedback from Palmer and Barrall’s combined 57 years of automotive teaching experience to ensure each module met their needs.

“COM is on the cutting edge and was the first two-year college we’ve worked with,” stated Rajakumar. “Alex is a true leader. It’s easy to help College of Marin achieve its goals, and we are working with all the key stakeholders, such as Mark and Ron, to deliver one seamless experience to students to prepare them for the workforce. The fact that they shared their knowledge made this an ideal public-private partnership. Financial freedom is a huge part of the American dream and we have found there is a big need to train people in skilled trades, especially with regard to jobs in automotive service and repair.”

Palmer and Barrall designed their online, remote courses around three elements—lecture; VR simulations using VR headsets and controller gloves; and hands-on learning by giving students a toolkit and items to take apart and put back together, such as a starter or carburetor. The entire program was funded using state Strong Workforce funds.

“You first need to have an educational lecture,” explained Barrall, “then you do the VR to introduce you to what you’ve learned, and then you perform the hands-on. This won’t ever replace hands-on, but it’s that step to get people excited about things they haven’t been excited about before.”

Palmer debuted his VR technology to 40 summer school students. The class included high school, college, and college graduate students, and auto technicians from local auto shops.

Palmer and Barrall realized the potential to expand VR lessons into other areas and began creating dozens of VR modules for different courses—automotive engine fundamentals, electronics, auto body and collision repair, among others. They saw VR as an innovative resource for other subjects, such as computer numerical control (CNC) milling, welding, and culinary.

COM faculty firmly believe that immersive learning experiences like these will greatly benefit the younger generation, especially high school students. COM is working with the Marin County Office of Education to bring VR technology to Tamalpais and Terra Linda High Schools. Students are excited to use VR, especially in auto classes. In fact, COM has increased interest in its auto program by 400 percent since introducing VR training. COM faculty have the goal of introducing the younger generation to auto and other careers with high-paying opportunities, such as advanced manufacturing. 

Administrators at COM, such as Assistant Superintendent/Vice President of Student Learning and Success Jonathan Eldridge and Superintendent/President Dr. David Wain Coon have supported faculty in finding alternative, innovative methods during this time to ensure students reach their goals.

“The willingness of our faculty and staff to explore other avenues and keep students moving through the program led to development of a short-term solution,” says Dr. Coon. “Many thought these types of courses were only possible in-person. Now we are seeing the long-term possibilities of this technology in other fields, as well. I’m excited for what’s next and how we can increase access to our classes.”

Alex Jones connected the College’s VR Auto program with Cypress Mandela, a community-based organization that provides workforce development training for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office Family Justice Center Program. Because of the pandemic, COM received permission to teach in Oakland with Cyprus Mandela, which is outside of its district.

Laura Bertolli, a COM automotive instructor who owned a local automotive business for 25 years, taught the course. She not only used the VR lessons, but also instilled in her students the confidence to work in a male-dominated occupation. Bertolli also helped her students find local internships to start their careers.

“One of my students told me, ‘Laura, I’m so excited! I saw my brother-in-law was going to jack up a car wrong and I knew the right way to do it, so I went over and showed him.’ The women in the course were so supportive of each other. I always tried to encourage them and tell them not to be afraid. Just get in there and show the men you know your stuff!”

Jones, Palmer, Barrall, and those at TRANSFR all suspect they are among the first in the world to create an auto course that uses VR technology in curriculum that is aligned with state and District requirements. The collaboration among faculty members and the TRANSFR team was fundamental to delivering training simulations to meet these standards.

“Ron and Mark were the biggest champions of this, in addition to the College itself,” said Jones. “They worked long hours with the vendors to design and develop this. We couldn’t get this done if they weren’t willing to go for it. No other auto program in the Bay Area was onboard with doing this. It was Ron and Mark who said, ‘okay, let’s do it!’ Now other colleges around the state want to use the curriculum they developed.”

Once classes are back in-person, Palmer and Barrall envision rotating groups through the VR modules while another group is in the shop with the instructor.

“The other thing that is really cool with this is, as the instructor, I can see how far each student progressed through each lesson, how long it took them, what their grades are. It’s information you don’t get in the classroom. When I am running shop, I typically have 15-20 students. I don’t know if each one made it all the way through each exercise or if they left some pieces out.”

The VR lessons display students’ progress towards mastering skills and allow students to demonstrate their hands-on comprehension. Because students are trained with a one-on-one digital coach, the immersive experience builds confidence in each task. A student can repeat each module as often as they like. Additionally, equipment costs drop dramatically. The ability to update a VR simulation easily allows students to work on the latest industry specifics.

In the end, their oil change grew to become—well, anything they could imagine.

More information on COM’s Career Education courses, including the Automotive programs, is online.