November 24, 2021

Using Virtual Reality to Teach Worksite Safety in Mineral Technology

This article is a translation of a text first published in Eductive’s French edition.

Virtual reality offers great pedagogical opportunities for the teaching of responsible behaviours to adopt in terms of worksite safety.

How would you explain where the blind spots are on a Caterpillar 797 haul truck? You would probably struggle to do it clearly and precisely, even if you had been driving one for 25 years.

In the mining industry, there are many dangers that are difficult to describe and must be experienced on the ground to be properly understood.

To address that problem, a small team at Cégep de Thetford decided to bring the worksite to the classroom using virtual reality (VR). Their application, developed in partnership with the VR firm Super Splendide [in French], teleports the students to a mining exploitation site so that they can experience some specific dangerous situations without leaving the comfort of their classroom.

Nadia Paquet and Jean-François Huard were so satisfied with the results of the application about blind spots that they decided to develop a second one, which places the students in dangerous situations in a factory.

For their 2 simulations, Nadia Paquet and Jean-François Huard won the Prix du ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur at the Trophées du numérique contest.

Video presentation of the two simulation for the Trophées du numérique (in French)

The origins of the application about the blind spots on mining vehicles

In fall 2017, Nadia Paquet, teacher in Mineral Technology at Cégep de Thetford, began to think about a virtual reality project with the IT Rep of her college, Éric Cloutier. Both had developed an interest for that emerging technology and had taken note of its pedagogical potential for Mineral Technology students.

Jean-François Huard, another teacher of the program, heard of the project and soon joined the brainstorming efforts.

The project progressed slowly for about a year, until the three of them met with representatives of Coalia [in French] (which was called Centre de technologie minérale et de plasturgie at the time) and the Centre de développement et de recherche en intelligence numérique [in French] (CDRIN, Cégep de Matane), who helped them clarify their vision of the application. They were then ready to submit their idea to the administration of the college.
Obviously, developing a virtual reality application is an expensive and time-consuming process. For that reason, the administration of Cégep de Thetford was hesitant to greenlight the project, but was quickly convinced by the first images of the application’s prototype.

Even with the support of the administration, such a complex project would not have been possible without external funding and technical support. The CDRIN, the CTMP, Super Splendide, and Cégep de Thetford all provided financial support for the development of the first application.

The technical support was provided by Super Splendide, who took charge of the conception of the immersive experience, and the creation of the application.

Jean-François and Nadia collaborated to the collection of the pictures used in the application and to the elaboration of the scenario based on the theoretical notions to teach. For example, when an employee approaches a mining truck, they must make sure to be seen by communicating verbally with the vehicle’s operator, but also by making a hand signal. The need for this double intervention was thus taken into account in the mechanics of the game created by Super Splendide.

How does the simulation about the blind spots on mining vehicles work?

The application brings the students on the site of a mine to experience many of the dangers they will face in their work.

The students ‘teleport’ from one situation to the next and must identify the employees who are in a dangerous situation (for example, the employees located in one of the blind spots of a truck) using the controllers provided with the VR headset.

Each student has a limited amount of time to give as many right answers as possible, which keeps them on their toes and adds a competitive aspect to the activity. The scoreboard ended up being one of the most appreciated aspects of the application.

At the end of the activity, the student is transported in the driving seat of the vehicle, from where they can review the actions they took from a different point of view.

Optimizing the use of VR in class

Since VR is a relatively new technology, few students have already had the opportunity to try it. To help them get familiar with the technology, the teachers begin by asking the students to watch 360° videos of underground or surface mines. When all the students are at ease with the medium, they can move on to the scenarios prepared by their teachers.

One of the main concerns of Nadia and Jean-François was to find the best way to integrate the application in their pedagogical practice to maximize the acquisition of the learnings: with only one VR headset, how do you make sure that the remainder of the group is involved in the activity?

The 2 teachers decided to project the stream of the headset on a whiteboard and to make the students work in teams. The scores are tallied by team, which ensures that the students collaborate with one another. As a result, the whole team develops their communication skills.

What are the advantages of the pedagogical use of VR?

Obviously, the novelty of using a VR headset motivates the students. Nadia estimates that only a quarter of the students had already had some experience with VR. The majority was very excited to try something new.

The teachers noted that their students appeared more emotionally invested. Since they experience dangerous situations first-hand, the risk seems much more real, which leads to a better retention of the learnings. Many made links with their everyday life: when we know how limited the view is from the driver seat of a truck, we are more careful around the massive snow removal trucks.

Finally, the game aspect of the application fosters a healthy competition between the students, which motivates them to repeat the activity often to improve their score (and their mastery of the contents at the same time)!

A simulation that puts the students on the site of a work accident

A new application, funded by a partnership of Cégep de Thetford and Super Splendide, with the support of the Digital Action Plan, was completed in March 2020. The pandemic delayed its implementation in a class, which should happen during the 2021-2022 school year.

Created in collaboration with Rio Tinto Alcan, this application places the learner in a situation where they must prevent an accident on a worksite.

The student has about 5 seconds to take the necessary actions before an accident takes place. If they do not manage to properly identify the cause, they will then witness the accident.

When an accident takes place, it always surprises the students. However, special care was put into making sure that it would not cause any “learning wounds”. Thus, no character dies during the simulation.

When the student manages to avoid an accident, they are then transported to the site of another accident that they must also prevent. This chain of potential accidents continues for 5 minutes. The student must solve as many cases as possible during that time lapse.

Improving the photorealism of pictures

Besides, Cégep de Thetford worked in 2019-2020 with the CDRIN on a project of the Programme d’aide à la recherche et au transfert (PART) [in French] to improve the photorealism of the training environments (virtual reality, 360 video).

A picture taken by a drone, on the left, and a version of the same image created in Unity, on the right.

A picture taken by a drone, on the left, and a version of the same image created in Unity, on the right.

Thinking about the relevance of VR in teaching and learning

If our projects piqued your curiosity, watch the recording of the virtual lab on immersive technologies organised by Vitrine technologie-éducation (now Eductive), where Éric Cloutier presented the project and discussed the pedagogical interest of VR [in French].


Thanks to Éric Cloutier, Nadia Paquet and Jean-François Huard for their precious collaboration in the writing of this article!

About the authors

Simon Côté-Massicotte

Simon is a writer and editor at Eductive and teaches ESL at CEGEP Limoilou. Passionate about literature, he holds a bachelor’s degree in English Studies from Laval University. Driven by a desire to improve the learning experience for his students, his techno-pedagogical interests include active learning and gamification.

Catherine Rhéaume

Catherine Rhéaume is an editor and writer for Eductive (previously Profweb) since 2013. She also teaches physics at Cégep Limoilou. Her work for Eductive fosters her interest for technopedagogy and encourages her to try innovative teaching practices.

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