ND Learning-Led Collaboration With Professor and OIT Brings Virtual Reality HafenCity to Architecture Students

Author: ND Learning

*Note: This story highlights a project undertaken as part of the 2023 Digital Learning Sprints. Information about the 2024 program is now available on Notre Dame Learning’s Grants and Funding page.

When Notre Dame Learning’s Office of Digital Learning (ODL) put out a call for extended reality projects as part of last spring’s Digital Learning Sprints, the team couldn’t have predicted it would be the first step toward something that had never been done at the University of Notre Dame.

But after Ming Hu, an associate professor in Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, proposed they work together to create an immersive virtual reality (VR) learning experience for students in her course on carbon-neutral development, that’s just what happened.

The 2023 Digital Learning Sprints—an initiative led by ODL and sponsored with OIT’s Teaching and Learning Technologies (TLT) group meant to support short projects intended either to learn quickly about a tool or strategy or to dig into a focused topic in a time-limited manner—invited applications from Notre Dame faculty in three areas: open educational resources, equity and access, and extended reality, or XR.

A bus stop in Sandtorpark in the virtual reality HafenCity.
A bus stop in Sandtorpark in the virtual reality HafenCity.

XR is an umbrella term that comprises augmented reality and mixed reality as well as VR, and Hu’s idea was to use the technology to take students to HafenCity in Hamburg, Germany—without ever leaving the classroom.

In terms of size, HafenCity is just under one square mile. That may not sound like a lot, but recreating it in its entirety would be more like building an open-world video game (think the Grand Theft Auto franchise) than something that could be completed in a time-sensitive fashion.

Determining the scope of the project and how to complete it required wide-ranging collaboration, with KC Frye, ODL’s director of creative and media, serving as creative director and leading a core team that included Adam Heet of the Navari Family Center for Digital Scholarship and TLT’s Kael Kanczuzewski and Jacob Mathis.

Heet and Mathis—as the project’s technical supervisor and lead developer, respectively—weighed what would be feasible given the parameters of the Digital Learning Sprint. Hu then identified two city blocks emblematic of HafenCity’s commitment to carbon-neutral development and, with Yi Lu, a learning designer in ODL, plotted out how to connect what students would see in the virtual environment to the course’s core learning principles.

This resulted in five lessons of five minutes or less, each featuring a fully textured, fully modeled rendering of a different structure or design, allowing students to explore the architecture of sites like the Küne Logistics University building, the Sandtorpark green space, and a combined heat and power plant in virtual reality.

“Through piloting this virtual reality project at Notre Dame, we’ve broken new ground in carbon neutral development education,” said Hu, who is the School of Architecture’s associate dean for research, scholarship, and creative work. “Our students are now able to virtually step into HafenCity, Hamburg, and immerse themselves in the nuances of carbon-neutral development. This isn’t just about technology; it’s about shaping a new generation of engineers, architects, and scientists who are deeply conscious of their role in promoting sustainable practices.”

Mathis, who has an extensive background in animation and 3D modeling, served as the primary developer and designer of the virtual HafenCity. Members of both the ODL and TLT teams attended Hu’s class on a Tuesday evening in October to help facilitate the experience, which was delivered via headsets.

Ming Hu, an associate professor of architecture, in a VR headset reviewing an initial build-out of the virtual reality HafenCity lessons.
Ming Hu reviews an initial build-out of the virtual reality HafenCity lessons.

While faculty research has previously given rise to virtual reality experiences, the collaboration between Hu, ODL, and TLT is believed to be the first time that a call for proposals led to a custom-created VR module designed explicitly to fulfill objectives for student learning in a class being taught at Notre Dame.

The students, a mix of undergraduate and graduate architecture students, took notice.

“Most of our time here in undergrad is focused on hand drafting and sketching/drawing,” said Nico Villarreal, a member of the class of 2024. “Of course those skills … are inherently valuable to design as architects, but concerning the complexity of carbon-neutral development it is important to use multiple avenues, including emerging technologies, to best understand the problems and their solutions.

“We are completing an analysis for a sustainable development in Hamburg, Germany, and comparing the sustainable practices to Chicago. Most of our class had been to Chicago, so the virtual reality experience allowed us to contextualize and understand the relationship of the components in Hamburg to bring similar sustainable solutions to Chicago.”

ODL’s Frye emphasized how much the session’s success had to do with Hu, who plans to use the lessons again in future courses.

“We were all excited to have the opportunity to contribute to the University’s distinctive architecture curriculum, but this was also a new type of project for us,” he said. “From the technology used to the scope of the build, we were learning as we went. Ming was the ideal collaborator in this, providing not only the vision for a new kind of experience for her students but also working with us collaboratively to make it a reality.”