Two Virginia Tech faculty members have been awarded an Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning Faculty Research Fellowship this academic year.

Simin Hall, research assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Ico Bukvic, assistant professor in the Department of Music, received the honor. Both are making advances in their respective fields and furthering Virginia Tech’s research profile.

Hall’s research interests include increasing adult learners’ access to engineering education through online learning. She is assessing the impact of various instructional technologies on students’ performance and problem-solving skills in the classroom delivery of Fundamentals of Thermodynamics, a required course for mechanical engineering majors. “The project intends to provide the empirical data,” says Sam Conn, director of the Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning, “to inform the design and technologies needed for effectively delivering such problem-based abstract engineering courses as thermodynamics in an online delivery format.”

“This research will provide valuable insight for mechanical engineering and other engineering departments at Virginia Tech in the design, implementation, and evaluation of undergraduate online engineering courses,” says Hall. Recently, she learned that her research abstract, which evolved from this research, was accepted for the 2010 American Society for Engineering Education conference.

The genesis of Bukvic’s project was an exchange with Matthew Komelski, a Ph.D. candidate in human development, after a performance hosted by the Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio, which Bukvic directs.

As a Taiji instructor (the more common western spelling is Tai Chi), Komelski says he saw great potential for leveraging proximity sensors, controllers, and other technologies used during Digital Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio events to map gestures to sound and visual imagery. The duo put their ideas into motion by first applying for a Virginia Tech Education Enhancement Grant (Arts Initiative) to prototype the use of a Wii Fit game platform in the teaching of Taiji in a K-12 physical education setting. The pilot was introduced at Craig County public schools and has yielded promising results.

Now with his research fellowship from the Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning, Bukvic began exploring the transformation of his classroom-based pilot program to an online format. The potential arising from his research include being the first prototype of an online physical education curriculum of its kind in the nation, and providing improved access to Taiji training for the growing number of people wanting to learn.

“Eventually, given the ease of use of the system's built-in engine for production of new lessons, I can see the same software platform being easily retrofitted to support other forms of exercise,” adds Bukvic.

The Institute for Distance and Distributed Learning Faculty Research Fellowships are a collaborative endeavor that support Virginia Tech faculty as their research agenda integrates with furthering online education and its applications. “In both cases our faculty research fellows are truly on the cutting edge of important ventures that will have national and even international impact on engineering education, exercise science and kinesiology,” concludes Conn.

Written by Mark Halsey, director of operations and administration for Virginia Tech Distance Learning and Summer Sessions.