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Russ College professor receives National Science Foundation grant

Bob Williams receives $200,000 for haptic interfaces research

A mechanical engineering professor at Ohio University’s Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology has received a National Science Foundation grant to continue his research into incorporating haptic interfaces in higher education.

Professor Bob Williams received a two-year, $200,000 grant to develop a computer program that employs a small mechanical arm to enable students to feel and interact with the physical forces they program in statics and dynamics courses.

“Haptic interfaces give the user the sense of human forces and touch from virtual reality environments on the computer,” Williams said. “We’re developing interactive, animated engineering software activities for augmenting the teaching and learning in standard courses.”

Williams said software that can demonstrate basic forces in physics, like friction and mass, has been available for years, but his new software will enable students to participate as their animations play out.

Hajrudin Pasic, also a professor of mechanical engineering at the Russ College, said this technology will be a great asset in engineering classrooms, as students could be actively involved in the physics equations and diagrams that are the current standard teaching methods.

“Engaging students more directly will hopefully lead to better understanding and insights, better student performance and lower student attrition,” Pasic said. “The sense of touch is largely and forces is largely missing in engineering education today, and Dr. Williams’ software products using haptics could really change this.”

But haptic interfaces aren’t anything new for Ohio University, or for Williams. The technology is also used in the Virtual Haptic Back, which Williams co-developed to train medical students in palpatory diagnosis.

“We have worked on a separate track with haptics in the College of Osteopathic Medicine for a decade, developing the Virtual Haptic Back, which gives medical students immediate feedback, thus adding science to the art of palpatory diagnosis,” Williams said.
While haptic interfaces have been quite successful in medical training, Williams says haptics could revolutionize physics and engineering education.

“Feeling is believing!” he remarked.