New ECE ILLINOIS Virtual Reality Lab is changing the way students learn

10/8/2019 Ryann Monahan, ECE ILLINOIS

Professor Raluca Ilie is transforming the way her students learn by using virtual reality to help them better understand complex electrical engineering concepts

Written by Ryann Monahan, ECE ILLINOIS

ECE ILLINOIS Professor Raluca Ilieis transforming the way her students learn by using virtual reality to help them better understand complex electrical engineering concepts. With the help of students in Illinois Computer Science, she’s running a new virtual reality laboratory that is offering new, interactive, and immersive learning experiences at ECE ILLINOIS, and could open the door to new learning opportunities for students across many disciplines.

The creation of the ECE ILLINOIS virtual reality lab was an innovative effort to help students build a solid understanding of Professor Ilie’s course material. “We developed the virtual reality lab as an additional tool for the students to actually understand abstract concepts in electromagnetism,” Ilie explains.

Physicists and mathematicians have struggled with grasping the theory of electromagnetism since James Clerk Maxwell first published it in 1865.  “Physicists had a hard time because it was so mathematical, and mathematicians had a hard time because he explained it in physical terms.”  Now, Ilie’s innovative virtual reality lab is teaching the students the theory in a way Maxwell may never have dreamed of.  

“VR provides us with this platform – it’s building something that is both interactive and immersive. Every student now has the opportunity to construct their own knowledge, because they get to play, and understand by doing rather than by me telling them what’s important,” Ilie said.

Prof. Ilie created the framework in Wolfram Mathematica and then turned to her colleagues at Illinois Computer Science to develop the software and turn the framework into virtual reality for the Fields and Waves (ECE 329) course.  Illinois CS Professor Eric Gene Shaffer was immediately on board and assembled a team of elite students from his virtual reality course. “It’s a project-based course, so students learn about making VR applications and then actually do it,” Shaffer said.

As a result, the benefits of the new virtual reality lab have amplified.  “We have University of Illinois students in one course building the software that is going to be used to teach other University of Illinois students in a different course,” Shaffer explained. Joseph Kuo (BSEE ’19) and Aras Yazgan (CompE ’21) helped develop the software students use in Ilie’s Fields and Waves (ECE 329) course. “This was probably the best job I could get,” Yazgan said.

The transdisciplinary project is also offering new insight to researchers in the College of Education at Illinois. A partner of the project, Illinois Education Psychology Professor Cynthia D’Angelo is evaluating this new learning technology and its effectiveness as a learning tool.  “We will make iterations on it over time to make sure students are learning from this kind of lab experience in the virtual reality, more than they would with the traditional lab experience.”.


Professor Raluca Ilie
Professor Raluca Ilie

The virtual reality project led by Professor Ilie is part of a Strategic Instructional Innovations Program grant funded by The Grainger College of Engineering in partnership with Carle Medical School, College of Education, Computer Science Department, Physics Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Funding has also been provided through the gift of John Bruning. The team also thanks Alec Shedelbower and Charles Pooh from Wolfram Research.  

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This story was published October 8, 2019.