Tech student aims to turn distracting phones into valuable teaching tools
On the desk in front of Nima was a piece of paper with a small pattern printed on it. He loaded up the app and popped his phone into the goggles. He flipped up the visor and looked around the room.
Everything the phone was projecting was the real world outside, just as if he’d been using his camera and nothing else.
Then he looked down at the paper.
Suddenly, the pattern turned into a playing video. Nima picked up the paper and moved it back and forth across his line of sight. The video kept playing, and the app kept tracking it. He moved his head back and forth. The video stayed on the paper and kept playing. Then he bent the paper at odd angles and waved it around in front of him. It kept playing, just like he planned it.
It was Nima ShahabShahmir’s first breakthrough in his app development and the first of many steps in a plan to create an augmented reality app for the modern classroom.
In the spring, Nima came up with an idea for an app to use as an educational tool. He took his idea to the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, who awarded him a grant to purse developing the app.
For now, he's calling the app "Project AR," and it’s designed to allow students to experience augmented reality as a component of their day-to-day coursework.
They’re similar fields, but there is a big difference between augmented reality and virtual reality, which the general public is more familiar with.
“Virtual reality is when you put the goggles on and you can view 360 video or a three-dimensional space, but it’s a space that someone designed for you,” explained ShahabShahmir.
“In augmented reality, you still see what you see right now, but you get to add objects into your reality. You're enhancing your reality. If you have a wall, you can turn it into your browser, for example,” he said.
Nima’s idea was driven by the fact that classrooms all over the country are seeking funding for tablets and other devices, but most students already have the technology they need in their pockets.
A Pew survey from 2018 found that 95% of teens in the United States have a smartphone, and that's where ShahabShahmir says schools can engage students in a more interactive way using technology they're already very familiar with.
“Students would download the app and, using inexpensive goggles, be able to have an enhanced lecture. In a chemistry class, students can see in three dimensions the makeup of a molecule. In a math class, they can manipulate a graph to see how different variables impact it,” he said.
Nima said there’s also a case for using the app in biology or anatomy courses. Time to dissect a frog? He hopes that one day students will be able complete the entire process on their desk using the app. Then they can dig into the makeup of everything from earthworms to blue whales, all without leaving the classroom.
"It'll also cut down on the smell in the hallways," he joked.
Nima is continuing his work on the application through the summer and will be seeking educator feedback on what works and what doesn’t.
Now that he’s got the hang of anchoring content to the pattern, he’s working on his next step.
“My goal is to make it work so that the app can scan a surface, like the top of a desk, and drop an object onto that surface,” he said.
That’s where the digital frog and giant molecules would come into play.
Nima has also been working with the LaunchLab to garner support for the project. The LaunchLab has given him access to educational coding software to hone his skills. He even presented his work during WVU’s Demo Day in Morgantown, where he landed the third place spot in the day’s app competition.
“The LaunchLab has been a real gamechanger,” he said.
In August, he’ll present his work and findings to the Consortium in the hope of landing additional support.
There’s a lot of work left to be done, but he says he’s up for the challenge. Nima only has one year left at WVU Tech and hopes to have a finished application by the time he graduates.
“Augmented reality. Virtual reality. Artificial intelligence. It’s all going to play a role in the classroom in the next few decades.
“If this can help students better grasp STEM lessons in a cost-effective way for teachers, then I’m going to do what I can to make it work,” he said.