Architects of a North Stafford virtual reality lab say the new learning environment they’ve created is the first of its kind in the nation, and will soon enhance the educational experience for Germanna Community College nursing students.
“We’ve been inside industrial-era education moving people through classes of 20 to 30 individuals at a time,” JJ Ruscella said. “We’re going to move into individualized or personalized learning, where data is aggregated on the individual and then delivered to that individual for them to digest and direct their paths forward.”
Ruscella, president of AccessVR, partnered with Vernon Green, president of Stafford-based GCubed, an information technology and cybersecurity government contracting agency, to create a “fully immersive experience” at GCubed’s headquarters. Although Germanna students are expected to begin using the technology this fall, Green said the VR training can easily be adapted for any learning scenario in any career field enforcement, such as bias training for law officers.
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“By identifying biases, by putting them in these VR experiences where they demonstrate, they execute and you can point out the biases,” Green said. “This is not for punishment, it’s for education and training.”
Green said the same “reality” will be experienced by Germanna nursing students, placing them in virtual emergency rooms with all of the sights, sounds and people they could expect to find in an actual hospital.
“All of these things in virtual reality appear more real to the student, which (brings) emotional interaction, which contributes to learning,” Green said.
Ruscella said the initial training for Germanna nursing students will focus on the Objective Structured Clinical Examination, a standardized health sciences exam that evaluates a students’ clinical skills performance and competence in tasks like medical examinations.
“We figure if we master the OSCE in the nursing program, then we can move out to anything else they might need,” Ruscella said.
In previous work, AccessVR played a key role in designing virtual cities under former Gov. Ralph Northam’s Smart Community Initiative. The firm now manages immersive learning contracts with both the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers and is now making the same VR technologies developed for those agencies available in the public domain.
“We launched AccessVR to really assist Virginia and beyond to extend the opportunities of immersive technology to the common individual,” Ruscella said. “We can distribute and democratize this opportunity.”
Ruscella said nursing students were selected as a first step in sharing the advanced technology.
“Because nurses are the most sophisticated and the most comfortable with using simulations,” Ruscella said.
Shashuna Gray, vice president of academic affairs and workforce development for Germanna Community College, said about 240 associate degree-level nursing students graduate annually from Germanna. She said the Stafford VR lab will augment the existing curriculum and hopes the technology will also accelerate the expansion of the school’s nursing program due to the high demand for nurses locally and across the country.
Gray said thousands of nurses left their jobs during the pandemic and many nurses working at hospitals have moved into private practice for better hours and pay. Gray also said Spotsylvania’s new $300 million Veterans Administration hospital, expected to open in about two years, will require a large nursing staff.
“We don’t want people to go outside the region to find the talent that they need,” Gray said.
Gray said Stafford’s VR lab gives future nurses a “full perspective” within a clinical setting from many different viewpoints. Students can see their own mistakes or evaluate moments where they hesitated instead of taking corrective action.
“And through self-reflection and visualization, they’ll be able to see areas that need improvement and work towards them,” Gray said.
Ruscella said by slipping on a VR helmet, students instantly experience a 360-degree surgical experience they will never get in a classroom. He said students are guided by an instructor during the training while negotiating with difficult role-playing patients or speaking directly to families about the welfare of their loved one. The lessons are recorded for students or faculty to play back and analyze.
“Think of every class you’ve ever had,” Ruscella said. “You don’t have any access to any of that information. If it was gathered inside of a system, it could tell you about you and how it could anticipate where you might go next.”
During Monday’s demonstration, participants donned VR helmets and walked through a virtual environment where at one point they are asked by a guide to cross a narrow wooden bridge high above a rocky, mountainous stream.
“There was a sensation of changing an elevation,” said Cody Blankenship, vice president of performance improvement for Mary Washington Healthcare. “My brain was feeling that there was an elevation change which I knew couldn’t be the case.”
Nick Sabo, executive director of the Winchester Regional Airport, said he had no idea what to expect before he walked the simulation, but said the experience invoked the same emotions he would have experienced crossing a real rickety wooden bridge over water.
“It was the same feelings and emotions about having to be careful, how do I approach that bridge, kind of walking with some care to not walk off the side of it,” Sabo said. “I was surprised that I actually felt that emotion despite being in a room where I was perfectly safe.”
Ruscella said the reason for that emotional interaction is the “uncanny valley,” which he says is the relationship between the human-like appearance of a simulated person and the emotional response it brings to an individual. For the purposes of training students, Ruscella chose cartoonish characters because he believes they draw a greater empathic connection from the student.
“People tend to feel uneasy or icky when they come in contact with (characters) who appear human,” Ruscella said. “That uneasy feeling causes an emotional distancing, so people will actually have a greater empathic relationship with an avatar than they will with something that looks almost real.”
Green said the basis of the lab’s creation came during the coronavirus pandemic when the majority of businesses, schools and even those wanting to keep in touch with loved ones far away was pushed into the virtual world.
“With this technology, soldiers to war can sit down for dinner with their families and everyone appears to be in the same space at the same time,” Green said.
In addition to managing the lab and providing the necessary hardware and equipment to make it all come together, GCubed is also managing the human resources aspect of the project, as well as its training and workforce development components. Green said his company’s own foundation is also pitching in by funding interns, role players, programmers and other members of the technical team responsible for building the virtual simulations. The Virginia Innovation Partnership Corporation is also involved in the learning lab endeavors.
Green, a retired Army Chief Warrant Officer 3, said the lab will also serve as a training center for future content creators and other production assistants, and will also benefit veterans who plan to leave the military within the next six months under the SkillBridge Program, which provides veterans opportunities to gain training and job experience.
“Collectively, we feel like we’re providing something that is going to be great for our community, making this little region in Virginia the center of the VR explosion,” Green said. “We believe this is going to be a new economy and will create countless new opportunities within the virtual space.”
James Scott Baron: 540/374-5438