Air University students experience virtual reality regional study trips Published April 6, 2021 By Staff Sgt. Lauren Silverthorne Air University Public Affairs MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Since its opening in 1946, Air University’s Air War College has seen endless cycles of challenges and changes. The latest of which is finding ways to provide the same level of educational experiences for students as before the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, students of the Regional Security Studies course at AWC have traveled to various regions to conduct field studies. The RSS trips enable senior leaders to become familiar with the political, military, economic, cultural and security issues within different regions around the world. This year, however, the trips were cancelled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and safety concerns, leaving students unable to participate in this pivotal piece of the program. Seeing a need, Dr. Brian Selmeski, an associate professor and the director of strategic initiatives, and Dr. Andy Clayton, assistant professor of leadership and augmented reality/virtual reality research task force director, teamed up with the staff at the AU Teaching and Learning Center and AU Library to come up with an alternative experience for the students. If they couldn’t give them the experience of regional traveling, they would bring the regions to them. This was accomplished by having classes take virtual reality trips March 29, 2021, that were hand-picked and coordinated by a team of professionals from several AU organizations. This group researched what VR experiences would be most useful, valuable and easily accessible to AWC students using VR headsets. Students in one class were able to don VR goggles and be instantly transported to the historic and cultural sites of Chile and Peru. Other students visited Russia and the Baltics, experiencing the sights and sounds of this foreign land without leaving the AU Library’s VR classroom. Clayton explained that this type of immersive learning can help students retain information from their VR experience and allows students to interact with curriculum content. “Abstract concepts or situations can now become real and present and can be experienced through VR, opening up possibilities that did not previously exist in academia,” he said. Although nothing can replace the experience of going to these sites in person, using VR is the safest and most realistic substitute available at this time. A substitute that the class was eager to try. “The students were very excited that AU is pioneering and integrating virtual reality into our education,” Selmeski said. It gave them the opportunity to see these things in more than just video, and more than just still photo formats, that are really important to understand the region that we were studying.” His class visited the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru, walked across the Simon Bolivar Plaza in Valparaiso, Chile, the Uyuni Salt Flats, and an open air market in Cartagena, Colombia. “The VR experience was mind blowing,” Lt. Col. Daniel Mendoza, a student who was part of the opportunity. “The VR trip enhanced the course by engaging your senses in such a way that made all the academic material we spent weeks analyzing into something tangible and real. It's one thing to read about the political, military, economic, and cultural factors of a region, but quite another experience entirely when you can actually see how these things come to life as they are reflected in the region's geography, architecture, and everyday life.” Professors view VR technology as a capability that can benefit all students and are working towards diversifying its use and integrating it into more courses at AU.