Workers in St. Cloud State University’s Visualization Lab are developing software that will help 911 operators pinpoint a caller’s exact location within a campus building.
They’ve made a virtual reality tour of campus and have helped make chemistry an even more hands-on science.
And they’re just getting started.
The Visualization Lab offers many opportunities for the campus and St. Cloud community. The lab is a collaborative working environment that can offer students a hands-on experience. The lab, located in the Integrated Science and Engineering Laboratory Facility (ISELF), is run by Visualization Engineer Mark Gill, who manages student workers with the goal of creating experiential learning opportunities on campus.
“It’s kind of a new pedagogical approach to experimentation and learning — especially in a lab-type environment,” he said.
The lab features six 46-inch high multi-touch computers, three 80-inch computer displays, two 3D projectors and a custom server/graphic workstation.
“Everything in the lab is high performance and optimized for graphics performance,” Gill said.
Classes held in the Visualization Lab are tangible so they allow students to retain more of what they learn because they’re also experiencing it.
“(What they’re learning) they are actually doing with their hands and seeing happen in front of their eyes instead of just sitting there listening to something or reading about it,” Gill said. “We’re here as a resource for different departments and different organizations on campus.”
Gill and Adel Ali, associate dean in the College of Science and Engineering, seek to collaborate with additional programs and organizations around campus. They have visited department meetings and invite anyone on campus to visit the lab to learn what it can do for them.
“My door is always open,” Gill said.
Students get real-world experience
Sophomores Steven Henningsgard, of St. Cloud, and Alex Persian, of Big Lake, are student workers who’ve been in the lab throughout the summer. Each student worker starts off learning the process and programs of the Visualization Lab and then they get started working. Their job is much like that of a software engineer.
When Gill starts a project he breaks it into components and assigns them.
“In that short amount of time I’ve gone from having just a basic understanding of programming to co-designing and engineering a piece of software that might end up being used by public safety officers all over the country.”
There aren’t many tutorials to prepare students for this type of work — there aren’t textbooks or reference material so the workers are having to figure out what they’re doing as they go, Gill said.
“That’s an important experience for an engineer to have,” he said.
Engineers are expected to be able to find the answer to a similar problem and figure out how to adapt that answer to fit their current needs.
Henningsgard is working on internal components of the GeoComm project as well as designing a virtual breadboard. He’s been working in the Visualization Lab since spring semester 2014.
A breadboard is used in engineering classes to teach students how to wire a circuit. Henningsgard’s virtual breadboard would allow students to build and test a circuit on the program before testing it out with live electricity on a physical breadboard.
“In that short amount of time I’ve gone from having just a basic understanding of programming to co-designing and engineering a piece of software that might end up being used by public safety officers all over the country,” Henningsgard said. “The cool thing about software engineering is that anyone can do just about anything they’d like. If you can dream it you can do it.”
The breadboard program is expected to be completed by the end of the semester, and would allow students to practice building circuits on their personal computers or phones.
Persian started working in the lab during the summer. He has been designing the user interface of the GeoComm project.
“It’s been an amazing experience.” he said. “I’ve been working in the lab for only about two months, and yet the amount I’ve learned has surpassed what I learned the past year through classes. I’ve also had the freedom to explore technologies and areas that I wasn’t exposed to before.”
What’s being done in the lab goes beyond the classroom. The virtual reality tour of campus is something that could be used by advising to introduce new and prospective students to campus.
Gill said the lab will soon be working to take that concept a step further and create an immersive virtual reality where individuals can be networked together and share the same virtual environment.
In all, 20 projects are in the works in the lab — much of the work is being done by student workers.
An off-shoot of the GeoComm project is a comprehensive app being developed for Public Safety that could act as a virtual emergency light, he said.
Instead of a student in danger on campus needing to find a blue emergency light and stay there until help comes, the student could activate an emergency app that would allow Public Safety to track and find a student in need of help, he said.
The project is also being designed to note the location of fire extinguishers and defibrillators in campus buildings for the Public Safety program, he said.
This summer Gill also worked with the School of the Arts and the rapid prototyping lab to create a model logo for the department.
Faculty, staff and students in the School of the Arts developed the look of the logo, which Gill turned into a 3-D model and the printing lab printed out. The School of the Arts plans to show the model to prospective students as an example of the type of work happening on campus.
Gill is looking to expand this type of collaboration between departments. He’s planning a similar exercise with his own mechanical engineering class on solid modeling — where he’ll ask his students to evaluate their designs in the visualization lab before printing them out.
“Come in here. Visualize it. See if it works,” he said. “If it works, print it out and they have something tangible at the end of the class. I think that’s going to be a powerful experience for the students.”