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ArcPrep: Detroit high school students survey the expansiveness of architecture

DETROIT—Joshua Powell, a recent University of Michigan dual master’s graduate in architecture and urban planning who took part in the first ArcPrep course seven years ago, plans to start a firm with his twin brother someday.

But first, he joined the Quinn Evans architecture firm in Detroit this summer.

“ArcPrep played a big part in establishing that dream and helping it come to fruition,” Powell said. “It’s pivotal for opening doors for students and helping you understand how to design.”

Video Produced by Harry Mayers, Michigan MediaAll photos by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

ArcPrep is a collaboration between the U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and Detroit Public Schools Community District that expands opportunities for high school juniors who want to learn about opportunities in the architecture field. It also connects students with architects and designers throughout the city. It’s funded by the Michigan-Mellon Project.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it,” said Torri Smith, co-director of ArcPrep and a lecturer at Taubman College. “I think that drives a lot of the work we do.”

“IT REALLY WAS ARCPREP THAT ENABLED ME TO KNOW THIS IS WHAT I WANTED. AND WITHOUT THIS PROGRAM I WOULDN’T HAVE KNOWN THAT I WANTED TO PURSUE A CAREER IN ARCHITECTURE.” — Joshua Powell, an ArcPrep student in 2015, who started working at a Detroit architecture firm this summer.

Established in 2015, ArcPrep transforms architectural education for roughly 60 Detroit-based high school juniors each year. Nearly 500 students have gone through the program so far.

“ArcPrep is intended to create empowering and experimental learning environments where young, emergent designers are treated as experts in the context of their cities and neighborhoods,” said Anya Sirota, associate dean of academic initiatives at Taubman College.

Torri Smith, co-director of ArcPrep and a lecturer at Taubman College.

“In this way, ArcPrep not only teaches about architecture, it offers a portal for our college’s students into Detroit communities, helping students share and understand what is at stake, and how transformation can be guided in the most equitable way by the design disciplines.”

Statistically, 2% of licensed architects in the United States are African American and fewer are Latino, Sirota said.

“You ask who is going to build this city and for whom. It’s about diversifying our discipline,” she said. “It’s also a way to give back and participate in the construction of a more equitable city.”


On a recent rainy morning in Detroit, 12 Cass Technical High School students made their way from Woodward Avenue to the North End via the QLine and a two-mile walk to tour Detroit native and artist Scott Hocking’s studio and junkyard. Hocking has been creating sculptures and photography projects in Detroit for more than 25 years. He draws inspiration from found objects, industrial castoffs and wasted materials.

The half-day trip fulfills two important goals of the four-month-long program—professional practice (exposing students to myriad professional pathways available) and building society (the reimagination of public spaces, with the understanding that designers inflect dynamic social conditions within building walls and beyond).

Anya Sirota, associate dean of academic initiatives at Taubman College.

Whether or not students are interested in architecture, ArcPrep teaches critical skills, including design, project management, technological and software proficiency, problem solving, communication and visualization. Students are developing the necessary technical proficiencies to complete a sophisticated final project.

“My plans for college … I want to do architecture. I’m pretty inclined to do it now, and if not architecture, I would want to go into the creative design space,” said ArcPrep student Royshawn Tye-Horn.

“The concepts that we use in ArcPrep can be applied to other fields. I’ve been leaning toward graphic design because we work with a lot of software like Photoshop, and going to these visits I’ve seen so many different parts of the architecture firms. But now the class feels like there will be some urban planners, there will be some fashion designers, maybe some true architects, maybe some team leaders. It showed me that it’s so diverse in the architecture field.”

The program runs five days a week at the Michigan Research Studio in downtown Detroit, a block away from the U-M Detroit Center. The program takes DPSCD students through five modules a semester. Each module—tool box; food, culture and access; institutions and civil liberties; technology and the city; final project—is meant to show students opportunities of the practice.

Students work on projects at the Michigan Research Studio in Detroit.

“We’re just beginning to see the program’s full circle benefits at work,” said ArcPrep co-director Salam Rida. “We’re now seeing students who were in the program as high schoolers seven years ago, students that went through a semester of ArcPrep and then as a result went to U-M’s Taubman College, and now they’re working full-time with architecture firms in Detroit.”

Last fall, 15 students spent the semester reimagining Detroit’s Fisher Body Plant No. 21, a long-abandoned Detroit factory, in partnership with an engineering educator from Cass Tech.

This semester, the students are working on a final project: “One room, one tower.” The students are reimagining affordable housing, increasing access to public green spaces and parks, and community ownership.

ArcPrep gives high school juniors challenges they wouldn’t typically find in a high school classroom.

ArcPrep student Royshawn Tye-Horn.

“We’re learning InDesign, Adobe and other cool programs that help us make architecture models,” Tye-Horn said.


Back in his studio, Hocking is discussing candidly his own humble beginnings—from growing up poor in Redford to a struggle with drugs and homelessness in his early 20s to his recent successes in his 40s with his exhibition “Retrograde,” a culmination of 25 years of work, at the Cranbrook Art Museum.

ArcPrep co-director Salam Rida, center, works with students at the Michigan Research Studio in Detroit.

He tells the ArcPrep students of the work he’s been doing for the past quarter century, which mainly consists of art installations in abandoned Detroit buildings (creating pyramid sculptures with old bricks) and photography projects (photographing more than 500 abandoned boats all around Detroit).

“I wanted to change people’s perceptions of what Detroit used to be, of what these abandoned buildings used to be, and what could be,” he said.

One of the students perks up as he hears Hocking mention a neighborhood not far from where he lives now, while discussing Detroit as an “art site” for his life’s work and the importance of making things out of industrial waste.

“Just keep doing it, just keep making art no matter what people say or if you’ve had success. Just keep doing it,” Hocking tells the students.

Students tour Detroit native and artist Scott Hocking’s studio and junkyard.

Community artists like Hocking show the students the vast possibilities that exist in their own backyard. They start with design fundamentals. By the end of the semester, they move on to addressing big challenges, such as the future of Detroit’s cultural institutions, urban farming and public space design.

“ArcPrep was where I really understood what this discipline was. Like, what does it mean to be a building designer? To be a space designer?” Powell said. “ArcPrep is what really showed me how to move through this space, and this is how you really make yourself kind of known as a designer and as an architect.”

Nearly zero-waste solution for construction: Reusable robotic 3D-printed formwork from upcycled sawdust

The BioMatters team at the University of Michigan has developed a fully biodegradable, reusable and recyclable material to replace the wasteful concrete formwork traditionally used across the construction industry. 

The base of this material is upcycled sawdust—millions of tons of sawdust waste are created each year from the 15 billion cut trees and often burned or dumped in landfills left to contribute to environmental pollution.

The BioMatters team at the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning and Digital Architecture Research & Technology (DART) Laboratory is making productive use of this readily available resource. Currently, they are using sawdust created at the Fabrication Laboratory at Taubman.

“We have made a recyclable, all natural biomaterial which is made out of sawdust. Other sawdust-based solutions are using other petroleum-based polymers—we use biopolymers which are completely decomposable,” said Muhammad Dayyem Khan, researcher at the DART laboratory. “And the biggest thing is it’s very easy to recycle and reuse.”

Led by DART director Mania Aghaei Meibodi, along with researchers Tharanesh Varadharajan, Zachary Keller and Khan, the team proposes a novel method that couples robotic 3D printing of the wood-based material with incremental set-on-demand concrete casting to create zero-waste freeform concrete structures. The 3D-printed wood formwork shapes the concrete during casting, and the concrete stabilizes the wood to prevent deformation. 

Once the concrete cures, the formwork is removed and fully recycled by grinding and rehydrating the material with water, resulting in a nearly zero-waste formwork solution.

“When the sawdust decomposes, it is producing fatty acids, lignin, which causes toxicity in water. And once it starts contaminating water, it has its effects on smaller wildlife, microbes and a broad range of organisms. And with sawdust being extremely flammable, its potential contribution to wildfires is very high,” Khan said.

This solution directly addresses significant waste and pollution contributions of the concrete industry where formwork constitutes 40% of concrete construction expenses. Traditionally made from wood and discarded once deformed, formwork adds to the negative environmental impact of concrete construction. 

“The amount of sawdust that is being produced out there—it is a huge chunk of material that is just being dumped or burned,” Khan said. “So rather than burning it up and generating more CO2 emissions, it is so much better that we make it into a material that is actually capable of being used again and again.”

This research is paving the way for sustainable construction practices that reduce waste, pollution and resource consumption in the concrete industry. By upcycling this unused byproduct of the wood industry, the project represents a significant step toward environmentally friendly and efficient concrete construction methods.

Groundbreaking project at Taubman College involving novel 3D concrete printing method

ANN ARBOR—A transformative development in 3D concrete printing promises innovation in the construction industry—with better and more environmentally friendly structures coming at a lower cost, say researchers at the University of Michigan.

Architect Mania Aghaei Meibodi and researchers Alireza Bayramvand and Yuxin Lin of the DART lab at U-M’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, have developed a method for creating ultra-lightweight, waste-free concrete. The method reduces weight by 72% as compared to conventional, solid concrete of the same size, and is leading to new partnerships and patents beyond U-M.

Previous approaches around 3D concrete printing, or 3DCP, aim to digitize construction and reduce concrete consumption. However, the most widely used approach has geometric limitations that restrict its application to simple shapes like orthogonal walls.

The Shell Wall, shown from front and back views, highlights the material reduction achieved through a thin membrane between structural ribs in a tall, doubly curved wall.

“This leads to high concrete consumption and limits its application for lightweight forms that entail intricate shapes like branching and angular tubular forms, overhangs, layer cantilevers, and filament section or angle variations,” said Aghaei Meibodi, assistant professor of architecture at Taubman College.

The most widely used approach on construction sites uses a planer toolpath, parallel to the ground or along a single plane, to guide the 3DCP tool head. The tool head follows this path and extrudes mortar from the printer head, depositing it in horizontal layers.

After each layer is deposited, the extruder nozzle is raised by the height of the deposited layer. This process is repeated to create a concrete mold, which is later filled with rebars and concrete.

The U-M team’s new approach, the “Shell Wall,” demonstrates a computational design and robotic 3D printing technology that effectively combines topology optimization with 3D concrete printing. Topology optimization is a technique that generates the most efficient distribution of material based on performance criteria, such as strength or weight, for a given set of support (The Smart Takes from the Strong).

The team created a computational model that synergizes nonplanar and variable material deposition based on the shape and geometric features of the topology-optimized parts. This allows for efficient use of material by placing it precisely where it’s needed for structural purposes, “and eliminates unnecessary overbuilding with excessive amounts of materials,” Aghaei Meibodi said. “All of these factors combined mean that we can build better, more environmentally friendly structures at a lower cost.”

In the age of robots, artificial intelligence and automation in architecture, 3D printing is gaining popularity in the construction industry, particularly for its ability to create complex shapes and structures quickly and with less waste.

Overall, the construction industry is beginning to quickly embrace 3D printing as a promising tool for innovation and sustainability.

According to Bayramvand and Lin, previous research has explored nonplanar 3D printing with polymer-based materials for intricate geometries, but using concrete—a more challenging material—has received limited attention.

With these technological advancements from the DART Lab researchers, notable leaders in 3D concrete construction—the Peri Group, ICON and WASP—are beginning to take notice.

With rapid urbanization and increased demands to build infrastructure, their work is contributing to major changes in the construction industry and overall 3DCP practices—establishing new partnerships designed to improve future outcomes for architects, lawmakers, 3D concrete printing startups and the concrete industry at large.

U-M Taubman College pioneering AI’s role in the future of architecture

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning is leading the way in using artificial intelligence in architecture.

“As a society, we are already surrounded by AI tools, such as unlocking your phone with facial recognition or asking questions and getting answers from a virtual assistant like Alexa,” said Matias del Campo, associate professor at Taubman College and director of the Architecture and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or AR2IL. “AI is now going to change architecture. If we do not engage with it, somebody else will do it for us, and then we have no control over the future of our own field.”

Any AI application is only as good as its data, so how can architects contribute to long term, reliable AI use in the field? By becoming involved in data input early and often, and contributing diverse and inclusive voices to the datasets.

“If you look at some of the early datasets already out there, you immediately notice that they are not done by architects, because they do not understand the qualities of architecture, such as the difference between a bad house and a good house,” Del Campo said. “This is why we need to contribute to the databases now and make sure they reflect architectural excellence, and also have less of the racial or cultural bias that has become evident in the older databases used in other fields.”

He proposes that addressing potential biases in the field is one of the most important roles architects in business and academia will play moving forward. Databases will remain vital components as AI expands from so-called “expert systems” that process only the input data to inform decisions, to systems that leverage the multitude of data by searching through it for recurring patterns or features and assembling them into unique designs.

“If we are involved (from the beginning), then we can use them to advance the field and make life better for people,” del Campo said.

An AI revolution

U-M architects—in collaboration with colleagues in robotics, computer science and engineering, and data science—have led the charge at Taubman College with the development of AR2IL, an interdisciplinary lab created to improve the application of AI in research fields of architecture, robotics and others. This interdisciplinary approach of the lab, paired with diverse perspectives, has led to a valuable interchange of ideas within and across research groups.

AR2IL is bringing together experts from across the field and other universities to discuss this emerging paradigm shift in architecture. U-M faculty and visiting faculty from Yale University, University of Texas, Texas A&M University, Florida Atlantic University and University of California, Berkeley, presented their initial findings in November 2022 at the first U-M Neural Architecture Symposium. Colleagues convened again at the recent Data Justice, AI, & Design Colloquium in February 2023.

Still not quite human

Much of the conversation around this emerging field is centered on the unintended consequences of AI, risk-benefit analysis of the new technology, and the amount of human-labor and oversight that goes into maintaining these AI systems (i.e., ChatGPT) and databases.

Most AI-driven design capabilities are generated by humans without accounting for “lived experiences” that robots simply do not have. For example, speakers at the recent Data Justice, AI, & Design Colloquium discussed the frequent lack of foresight behind certain AI products like the germ-killing robots developed by Carnegie Robotics being utilized at Pittsburgh International Airport to eliminate microbes in high-traffic areas.

A panel discussed how these robots still require monitoring from airport janitorial staff to do things like clean up water left behind in restrooms so travelers don’t get injured during their journey.

“The robots essentially need babysitters,” said Sarah Fox, assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie-Mellon University.

Architectural applications, like DALL-E, are capable of creating AI-generated images with written prompts, but they still require complex algorithms and heavy human oversight in order to generate appropriate architectural building designs or plans for cities.

New technologies

On a mission to address the lack of lived experiences among robots, research groups at U-M are hard at work on new technologies, such as autonomous robots capable of performing on-site construction tasks at the U-M Robot Garden, while studying how robots interact with their surrounding environment.

SPAN, the award-winning international architecture practice co-founded by del Campo and Sandra Manninger, architect and researcher at the New York Institute of Technology, is undergoing early-stage research and development into the use of AI technology to teach spatial recognition on job sites and the development of other key lived experiences, like engaging with humans and recognizing their facial expressions.

The future of AI and its role in architecture is limitless, but the work continues.

U-M Arts Initiative, Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, name 2023 Artist Residency

ANN ARBOR—A London-based team specializing in extended-reality technology will be the new 2023 artists in residency at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, in partnership with the U-M Arts Initiative.

Bruno Martelli and Ruth Gibson, commonly known as Gibson/Martelli, will work closely with Taubman College faculty and students on XR technologies by developing work, conducting workshops and engaging with student projects beginning this Winter 2023 semester.

The Taubman Visualization Laboratory (TVLab) Artist Residency combines artistic practice, expansive research methods, and an openness to experiment and explore possibilities within the context of a research university.

In pursuit of new modes of storytelling, design research and hybrid automated processes, TVLab engages a breadth of tested and yet-to-be-discovered applications of groundbreaking visualization tools on U-M’s North Campus.

Gibson/Martelli collaborate to develop interactive immersive installations that explore perception, embodiment and presence in XR. Martelli is a programmer, software designer and visual artist for virtual environments. Gibson is a choreographer and movement scholar at the Centre for Dance Research, Coventry University. Combined, the artists have over 20 years of experience in technology and interdisciplinary research within higher education and industry sectors at national and international levels. Both are graduates of RMIT University (Melbourne, Australia), holding joint Ph.D.s in immersivity and somatic sensing.

The proposed research agenda from Gibson/Martelli will explore the virtual reality experience, multiscreen video installation, creating immersive worlds and the development of open-source tools in the inaugural year of TVLab. The duo will use the Taubman residency to continue developing their skills and their latest project, “PAN + TILT.” They will focus on:

The duo also will open up their research and development process and invite students to join, creating a unique scene for virtual reality or XR research and development that U-M students can implement in the classroom.

“We are excited to work with the phenomenally talented, creative and expert pair of Gibson/Martelli to leverage U-M resources—in this instance the newly launched TVLab—to make an impact for our students and campus in a way that only artists can,” said Christopher Audain, managing director of the Arts Initiative. “We are eager to see what we learn in collaboration with the artists and Taubman College.”

The TVLab artist residency is the pilot for the U-M Arts Initiative Visiting Artist Integration Project, a visiting artist program to integrate the creative vision and dynamic thinking of artists into the U-M process of engagement and learning. The program is just one example of the Arts Initiative’s work with emerging and established artists to create a mutually beneficial exchange between artists and the university to enhance learning, support artists and drive discovery.

“Extended reality platforms are an increasingly central framework for the kind of space-making and spatial visualization that has long been at the core of architecture and planning,” said Jonathan Massey, dean of Taubman College. “I am excited for Gibson/Martelli to help students, faculty and staff at and beyond Taubman College find new creative possibilities in XR.”

Anya Sirota, associate dean for academic initiatives and associate professor of architecture at Taubman College, said: “We’re delighted that the Arts Initiative recognized Taubman College’s leadership in experimental modes of spatial visualization and chose us as a collaborator to launch this residency program.

“We founded TVLab to expose the myriad of contributions our faculty and students are already making to the field of spatial visualization, to cultivate new pedagogical and professional experimentation, and to make emergent tools accessible and joyful. The resident artist will bring another fresh perspective to this space and will benefit from a fertile ground in which to engage with Taubman College and the broader university community around the future of visualization in the arts and public discourse.”

The TVLab aligns with U-M’s XR Initiative through the U-M Center for Academic Innovation.

The arts add fresh perspective to social impact design discussion at “Size Up” event

ANN ARBOR—Equal parts scholarly gathering and collaborative happening, “Size Up: Changing Paradigms in Social Impact Design” aims to spark hybrid, flexible and engaging conversations through a series of workshops led by Detroit-based artists and activists. The event, 3-9 p.m. Thursday, March 31, at the University of Michigan Art & Architecture Building, stands as a prototype for what the blended future of academic happenings could look like. The symposium makes it possible to engage locally while still tapping into global expertise, and creates multiple layers of equity and access by ensuring that scholarship is not siloed from the communities they seek to impact, organizers say.

Faculty from the U-M Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning will be moderating panel discussions to invite reflection and input from design and public sector experts. The event is free and open to the public.

Germane to the mission of “Size Up” is its participatory framework which encourages attendees to question expertise; it asks students and faculty to learn from each other, equalizing the production and source of knowledge. Short workshops are held after each speaker’s presentation providing a platform to “hash out the ideas live” and collectively digest their hypothetical impact.

“It’s a way for us to first equalize the playing field between the international experts and our Detroit-based experts to make sense of what is considered in a scholarly manner and understand how it really impacts communities and how we work and live,” said Anya Sirota, associate dean for academic initiatives at Taubman. “We treat everyone equally in their expertise. I think that’s very important for us from a DEI framework.  Scholarship is not disengaged from local actors. We’re in it together.”

Social impact design bridges many disciplines, attracting those seeking to address humanitarian issues and to make a positive impact in the world. For this reason, the Taubman College has also made great efforts to actively infuse the arts and the value of building and supporting culture into the discussion. Bringing in musicians from Detroit, including My Detroit Players, DJ Los, and Emily Rogers, the 2022 Wallenberg Symposium emphasizes diversity, equity and inclusion, while helping to debunk the idea that entertainment arts and scholarship are separate, Sirota said. 

In the process, the event showcases work that equitably addresses social problems, especially in places where design is traditionally unavailable or inaccessible. 

“All of this is not about how DEI is aspirational. It’s actually living the concepts by introducing radical horizontality in terms of who produces new knowledge,” she said. 

“For me, this is a DEI framework lived and not projected. I think we’re going to work very hard to start living by this ethos and these concepts. Rather than planning for the future, I think we’re going to start now.”

Sirota and Jose Sanchez, a Detroit-based architect, game designer and theorist, are moderators for the event, which is also sponsored by U-M Public Design Corps.

Speakers: Global leaders in social impact design

The Collectif Etc. (Maxence Bohn) is a nonprofit organization based in France that collaborates with local communities to address the use of public spaces.

Chokwe Antar Lumumba is the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi. 

Niklas Maak is the arts editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and an architecture theoretician working in Berlin.

Mitsuhiro Sakakibara is a Kyoto-based architectural and urban researcher. 

Tatjana Schneider is a professor for history and theory of architecture and the city at the Technical University Braunschweig, Germany. 


Facilitators: Detroit-based artists and activists

Sherrine Azab is the co-director of the Detroit-based theater ensemble A Host of People

Jake Hooker is a writer, director, projection designer, scholar and educator. He teaches in the U-M Department of Theatre.

Billy Mark is an interdisciplinary artist who lives and works in Detroit.

 Gina Reichert is an artist, architect and community developer who founded Power House Productions.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist and multimedia artist. 


Music: Live performance 

My Detroit Players features bassist Emily Rogers, a producer who works as a songwriter, musician, dancer, choreographer, event curator, musical director, host and DJ. Other members include: JRGotTheHiTS (drums), Shaphan Maestro Williams (keys),  Duminie Deporres (guitar), DJ Los (turntables), Zac Land (trombone) and Nick Speed (vocals and music production center).

The symposium continues the tradition of honoring the humanitarian work of Raoul Wallenberg, a Taubman College alumnus distinguished for his courageous actions in German-occupied Hungary during World War II. 

More information: Jacob Comerci

‘The Dude’ marks 25 years of innovation and creativity

While the technology inside the James and Anne Duderstadt Center has certainly changed since 1996, one thing has not: The center remains an innovative hub where collaboration, experimentation and creativity flourish.

“The Dude,” as it is affectionately known, is famous for its vast collection of the latest technological tools. Those tools — and some of the work they’ve helped produce — will be on display during a weeklong 25th anniversary celebration that begins Oct. 4.

James Hilton, vice provost for academic innovation and dean of libraries, said the Duderstadt Center is one of the busiest, most dynamic spaces at U-M. With more than 400 computers spread over 250,000 square feet, it is the university’s largest computing space. It has several studios, laboratories, performance venues, and gathering and study spaces.

As many as 6,000 people visited daily before the pandemic.

Prospective students explore the Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus, or MIDEN, the Duderstadt Center’s immersive reality space, as part of an “Explore Engineering” event in 2019. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)

Prospective students explore the Michigan Immersive Digital Experience Nexus, or MIDEN, the Duderstadt Center’s immersive reality space, as part of an “Explore Engineering” event in 2019. (Photo by Joseph Xu, College of Engineering)

“I think it’s a jewel,” said Hilton, who also is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of information. “I’m not aware of any other place in higher education where students can walk in, and if they’re willing to put in some time (to learn how to use the equipment), they can have access to tools that students at other universities don’t have access to.”

The deans of the schools on North Campus proposed the center in the early 1990s as a way to provide students with access to rapidly evolving technologies. At the time, the internet was relatively new, and the transition from physical books to digital libraries was just beginning.

Originally named the Media Union, the facility was envisioned as a technology-intensive innovation commons where students, faculty and staff from multiple disciplines could gather to create, invent and design things.

James Duderstadt, U-M’s president at the time, played a key role in securing the state funding that made the project a reality. He and Dan Atkins, who served as interim dean of the College of Engineering and later as founding dean of the School of Information, made several trips to Lansing to convince the governor and key legislators to provide $45 million for the project.

“When the Media Union finally opened its doors in 1996, there were probably fewer than a dozen people on the campus who understood what it was,” Duderstadt wrote in a report about the history of the center. “But the students rapidly learned, and within a month it became the most popular facility in the university.”

Duderstadt said the facility sent a powerful message: that the university and the state of Michigan prioritized investment in “creating art, creating technology, creating the future.”

In 2004, the Board of Regents approved renaming the Media Union complex the Duderstadt Center in recognition of Duderstadt and his wife, Anne. James Duderstadt, president emeritus and University Professor of Science and Engineering, still has an office there.

Student Will Stanton’s video shoot thesis project included spiral-shaped netting, which gave the piece an ethereal feel. (Photo by Kathi Reister, Duderstadt Center)

Student Will Stanton’s video shoot thesis project included spiral-shaped netting, which gave the piece an ethereal feel. (Photo by Kathi Reister, Duderstadt Center)

From the beginning, the Duderstadt Center has given members of the U-M community access to the newest generations of information technology and digital media tools, as well as expert support. Access to costly and complex resources, and the training on how to use them, is available for free.

The technology is refreshed and upgraded often. Currently, the center’s leadership is working with a number of schools and colleges to acquire a BigRep Studio G2 3D printer, a large machine that offers 10 times the build capacity of most standard 3D printers, with several available materials to fit various applications.

Many of the center’s resources are geared toward the curricula of the schools on North Campus: the College of Engineering; the School of Music, Theatre & Dance; the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning; and the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design.

An executive committee made up of North Campus deans and the dean of the School of Information works closely with Hilton and Interim Chief Operating Officer Kathleen Bauer to shape the center’s vision and priorities.

The Duderstadt Center is home to the Art, Architecture and Engineering Library, the College of Engineering Computer Aided Engineering Network, the Digital Media Commons, Arts Engine, the Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, the Center for Entrepreneurship and the Millennium Project.

Alec Gallimore, Robert J. Vlasic Dean of Engineering, said when the Duderstadt opened, it housed the college’s first computing cluster, a very early prototype video conferencing system, and early virtual reality and visualization studios.

The center still provides important resources for engineering students today. The Michigan Electric Racing team recently used it to create a video to launch its latest car, and mechanical engineering classes have done course design reviews there in virtual reality.

A motion capture demonstration is filmed in the Duderstadt Center Video Studio while staff monitor and record sound and video content from the video studio control room. (Photo courtesy of Duderstadt Center staff)

A motion capture demonstration is filmed in the Duderstadt Center Video Studio while staff monitor and record sound and video content from the video studio control room. (Photo courtesy of Duderstadt Center staff)

“As a space where students could have access to technologies that were beyond their reach elsewhere, it was and still is a place to help students explore what’s possible,” said Gallimore, the Richard F. and Eleanor A. Towner Professor of Engineering, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of aerospace engineering.

Along with hundreds of computers with advanced software, the center has many unique studios and labs. The Visualization Studio has advanced tools and resources for creating extended-reality, augmented-reality and virtual-reality experiences. The Fabrication Studio contains 3D printers, a laser cutter, a CNC router, 3D scanners, dedicated computers and electronics workbenches.

State-of-the-art audio studios contain equipment that meets or exceeds current recording industry standards. A 4,200-square-foot, broadcast-quality production studio is available for the video recording and livestreaming of performances and events.

“It has leading-edge technology,” Hilton said. “It has a huge sound stage. When it was first built, it was said to be the largest sound stage east of the Mississippi outside of New York City limits.”

Visitors will be able to check out the studio and other features of the Duderstadt Center during the 25th-anniversary celebration from Oct. 4-8. Several special activities are planned for the open house-style event, including building tours, film showings and demonstrations of 3D and virtual reality technology. Some activities require advanced registration.

Reflecting on the past 25 years, Duderstadt said he’s proud of the people who had the vision to make the Duderstadt Center a reality and the students, faculty and staff who continue to carry that vision forward.

Hilton said while the center’s technology may look different today, its mission does not.

“What I think is interesting about the 25th anniversary is because of its focus on innovation and collaboration, it’s as relevant to North Campus and U-M more generally today as it was the day it opened,” he said.

This story was originally published by The University Record.

Celebrating U-M alumnae for Women’s History Month

Throughout the month of March 2021, we’re celebrating Women’s History Month by highlighting trailblazing University of Michigan alumnae in a variety of arts and cultural fields. From the Brady Bunch to Saturday Night Live, and Superman, bookmark this tab or follow us on Instagram to learn more about how these pioneering U-M women have shaped our culture.


Renowned opera singer Jessye Norman (1945–2019). Norman, who earned her Master of Music at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance in 1968, was one of the world’s most celebrated performing artists, acclaimed for her performances in a wide range of leading roles with the world’s premier opera companies, in solo recitals, and in concerts of her cherished classical repertoire with preeminent orchestras all over the globe.

A bonafide opera star who was unafraid to venture onto stages beyond the genre, Norman was often called upon to perform at many of the world’s most important events. She sang at the second inaugurations of Presidents Ronald Regan and Bill Clinton; at Queen Elizabeth’s 60th birthday celebration; at the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta; at the 200th anniversary celebration of the French Revolution; and at a ceremony honoring the victims of 9/11 when two monumental columns of light were unveiled at the site of the former World Trade Center. Read more.


Ann B. Davis (1926–2014) was an American actress who achieved prominence for her role in the NBC situation comedy The Bob Cummings Show (1955–59), ahead of playing the part she was best known for: Alice Nelson, the housekeeper in ABC’s “The Brady Bunch” (1969–74).

As Alice, Davis, a 1948 U-M graduate, carved out a special place in pop culture history. She would go on to reprise the role in spinoffs and specials once the show ended its five-season run; she would create a cookbook based on recipes related to the show; she would star in a Swiffer ad. 

Davis’s journey to fame and a 1970’s version of fortune is highlighted throughout the collection of her papers and photographs that were recently added to the U-M Bentley Historical Library’s collection. She grew up in Schenectady, New York, where she, her twin sister, and their brother and parents performed variety shows in their living room. The twin Davis girls then moved to Ann Arbor, where Ann decided to study pre-med before switching to speech and drama. The rest is history.


Nancy Pearl is an American librarian, best-selling author, and literary critic who graduated with her BA at U-M in 1965 before going on to earn her master’s in library science in 1967. In addition to having her own action figure, which comes with a stack of books and her finger to her lips mouthing “Shhhhh,” she is known for her reviews books on NPR’s “Morning Edition”; was named Librarian of the Year in 2011 by Library Journal; and, at 72, saw the publication of her first novel, “George & Lizzie,” set in Ann Arbor. She is well known for recommending books to readers through her “Book Lust” series.

Pearl was raised in Detroit, Michigan and, by her own account, spent much time of her childhood at the public library. Her decision to become a librarian started at the age of 10 with the inspiration of the children’s librarian at her local public library. She credits books and librarians with helping her through a difficult childhood: “It’s not too much of an exaggeration—if it’s one at all—to say that reading saved my life.” She earned her master’s in library science at the University of Michigan (1967) and became a children’s librarian in her hometown library system before moving on to other libraries.


Gilda Radner (1946–1989) was an actress and comedienne who was one of the seven original cast members for Saturday Night Live (SNL). In her routines, Radner created unforgettable characters, including misinformed news commentator Roseanne Roseannadanna. In 1978, she won an Emmy Award for her performances on the show. She also portrayed those characters in her highly successful one-woman show “Gilda Live” on Broadway in 1979. Radner’s SNL work established her as an iconic figure in the history of American comedy.

Radner was born and raised in Detroit, MI, and attended U-M from 1964–1970 while studying education. After she lost her life to ovarian cancer in 1989, her husband Gene Wilder carried out her personal wish that information about her illness would help other cancer victims. He established the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai to screen high-risk candidates (such as women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent) and to run basic diagnostic tests. He testified before a Congressional committee that Radner’s condition had been misdiagnosed and that if doctors had inquired more deeply into her family background, they might have attacked the disease earlier.

She was posthumously awarded a Grammy Award in 1990; was inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame in 1992; and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2003.


Barbara Ess (1944–2021), who passed away earlier this month, was an avant-garde musician and photographer who was widely known for her large-scale ambient works shot with a pinhole camera.

Ess graduated from U-M in 1969 with a degree in philosophy and English literature. In a varied career rooted in the downtown Manhattan art scene of the 1970s and ’80s, Ms. Ess sang and played guitar and bass in Y Pants, The Static and other “No Wave” bands, and was also known for publishing an influential mixed-media zine.

She taught at Bard College from 1997 until her death and continued to release music, playing in the three-woman band Ultra Vulva and participating in a project called “Radio Guitar” with her friend, the video artist Peggy Ahwesh.


Christine Dakin is an American dancer, teacher, director, and a foremost exponent of the Martha Graham repertory and technique. Dakin graduated from U-M in 1972, and in addition to dance, she majored in French and Russian studies. She is known for her performances of Ms. Graham’s roles and for those created for her by Martha Graham and artists such as Robert Wilson, Twyla Tharp and Martha Clarke.

Performing in the principal theaters of the world, partnered by renowned artists such as Rudolf Nureyev, she was chosen by Graham for the company in 1976. Dakin became its associate artistic director in 1997 and was named artistic director with Terese Capucilli in 2002. Leading the company to its rebirth, they are credited with bringing the artistic excellence and repertory of the Company to a level not seen since Martha Graham’s death. They were both named Artistic Directors Laureate.

On the faculty of The Juilliard School since 1993, she is currently also on faculty at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater School in New York, and is known internationally as a teacher and guest artist.


Celeste Ng is an award-winning writer and novelist. Her first novel, “Everything I Never Told You” (2014), was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and named “best book of the year” by over a dozen publications. The novel, which drew on her personal experiences of racism as well as her relationships with family and friends, took six years to write. It was the winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the ALA’s Alex Award. It has been translated into over thirty languages and is currently being adapted for the screen.

Celeste’s second novel, “Little Fires Everywhere(2017) was a #1 New York Times bestseller, a #1 Indie Next bestseller, and Amazon’s Best Fiction Book of 2017. It has spent over a year on the New York Times bestseller list, in part due to the well-known mini-series of the same name released on Hulu last year, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington. Ng is one of the show’s producers.

Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, the setting of her second novel. She attended graduate school at U-M, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts in writing in 2004 (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program). While at U-M, Ng won the Hopwood Award for her short story “What Passes Over.”


Lucy Liu is an award-winning actress, producer, director, artist and social justice advocate who has worked in both television and film. 

Liu was a transfer student and a member of the Chi Omega sorority at U-M, where she graduated with a BA in Asian languages and cultures in 1990. Without prior acting experience, she auditioned for a small part in a Basement Arts production of “Alice in Wonderland” at U-M and walked away with the lead during her senior year.

After beginning her career by guest-starring on numerous television series episodes, including “The X-Files,” “NYPD Blue,” and “ER,” Liu has gained popularity through many other characters such as ill-mannered lawyer Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal,” and Viper in the “Kung Fu Panda” animated movies. She once said in a 1990 New York Times interview that “There aren’t many Asian roles, and it’s very difficult to get your foot in the door.” She went on to star in many blockbuster films like “Kill Bill,” “Charlie’s Angels”, “Chicago,” “Lucky Number Slevin,” “Domino”…the list goes on. Lucy Liu became the second Asian-American woman with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

Liu is also an accomplished visual artist, often producing art and exhibitions under the pseudonym Lu Ying, her Chinese name. She given to, raised money for, and has served a spokesperson for many different causes, including breast cancer research, global human trafficking, UNICEF, and The Human Rights Campaign.


Jesmyn Ward is a novelist, scholar, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and is the only woman and only African American to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice. 

Ward received her MFA in Creative Writing from the U-M Helen Zell Writers Program in 2005. Shortly afterwards, she and her family became victims of Hurricane Katrina. Empathizing with the struggle of the survivors and coming to terms with her own experience during the storm, Ward was unable to write creatively for three years – the time it took her to find a publisher for her first novel, “Where the Line Bleeds.” In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called Ward “a fresh new voice in American literature” who “unflinchingly describes a world full of despair but not devoid of hope.” Her second novel “Salvage the Bones” drew from her experiences of surviving Katrina, and won her a 2012 Alex Award and the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. She also won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction for her novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing.”

Ward, who wrote a memoir about the loss of her brother “The Men We Reap” (2013), recently penned an essay in Vanity Fair about the recent loss of her husband:  “Even in a pandemic, even in grief, I found myself commanded to amplify the voices of the dead that sing to me, from their boat to my boat, on the sea of time.”

She is currently an associate professor of English at Tulane University.


Kapila Vatsyayan (1928–2020) was a leading educator and scholar of Indian classical dance, art, architecture and art history. Vatsyayan, who has been described as the ‘grand matriarch’ of cultural research, served as a former member of parliament and bureaucrat in India, and was a lifetime trustee of the Indian International Centre.

Apart from being scholar and dancer – trained in Kathak and Manipuri – she also advised several governments on education and culture. She held several posts in the Government of India and in institutions such as the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, of which she was the founding director.

In 1970, Vatsyayan received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, the highest honor conferred by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, India’s national academy for music, dance and drama; and in 1995, was awarded the Lalit Kala Akademi Fellowship, the highest honor in the fine arts conferred by Lalit Kala Akademi, India’s national academy for fine arts. In 2011, the Government of India bestowed upon her the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second highest civilian honor.

Vatsyayan completed her MA in education at U-M and wrote nearly 20 books on different forms of art and their histories during her storied career. Notable works include “The Square and the Circle of Indian Arts” (1997), “Bharata: The Natya Sastra” (2006), “Dance in Indian Painting” (2004), “Classical Indian Dance in Literature and the Arts” (2007), and “Transmissions and Transformations: Learning Through the Arts in Asia” (2011).


Leslie Newman (1939–2021) is a screenwriter and author who co-wrote the first three Superman films with her husband and collaborator David Newman.

 She also wrote a novel titled “Gathering Force” (Simon & Schuster, 1974), and a best-selling cookbook titled “Feasts: Menus for Home-cooked Celebrations” (HarperCollins, 1990). 

She graduated from U-M in 1960—which is where she met her husband—and they went on to write more than a dozen motion pictures together. According to U-M FTVM professor emeritus Frank Beaver, “their collective interpretation of Jerome Siegel’s and Joseph Shuster’s original comic-book characters dared to mix narrative styles: action-adventure, satire, and screwball comedy with mythic and religious themes,” and all went on to enjoy commercial success.

In a 1981 interview with People Magazine following the summer after the release of Superman II, which grossed $190M, Newman said: “I identify with Lois Lane because it’s possible to be madly in love with a guy and want to settle down, and still want to have a career.” Sadly, Newman passed away in January this year.


Julia Wolfe is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer whose music has been said to “reimagine classical forms by mixing minimalist patterns and the driving energy of folk and rock genres.”

Wolfe learned piano as a teenager but only began to study music seriously after taking a musicianship class at U-M, where she received a B.A. in music and theater from @umichrc as a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 1980. 

Distinguished by an intense physicality and a relentless power, Wolfe’s music pushes performers to extremes and demands attention from anyone who listens. Her 2019 large-scale work for orchestra and women’s chorus, “Fire in my mouth,” has received extensive acclaim for being “commandingly imaginative and emotively potent.” 

A 2016 MacArthur Fellow, Wolfe is also co-founder/co-artistic director of New York’s legendary music collective Bang on a Can. Founded in 1987 and called “the country’s most important vehicle for contemporary music” by the San Francisco Chronicle, the organization focuses on the presentation of new concert music, and has presented hundreds of musical events worldwide. 

Wolfe is the current artistic director and professor of music at NYU Steinhardt Music Composition.


Nina Davuluri is a television host, public speaker, and advocate who won Miss America 2014. She was the first contestant of Indian descent to win the competition, and only the second Asian American to be crowned. 

While at U-M, she was a Sigma Kappa/Alpha Mu, was on the Dean’s List, and in 2011, graduated with a B.S. in brain behavior and cognitive science.

Though Davuluri competed and won as Miss New York, the first pageant she won was Miss St. Joseph at age 16 in St. Joseph, MI—where she moved to at age 10. This period of her life would influence her future Miss American platform, “Celebrating Diversity Through Cultural Competency,” as its goal is to confront bullying by actively learning to talk about diversity in an open and respectful way. 

Drawing on her background in Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam, Davuluri danced to the song “Dhoom Taana” from the film “Om Shanti Om” for her Miss America talent performance. Her routine marked the first time Bollywood appeared on the Miss America stage. After being crowned Miss America, she said that she was told that she was “never going to win with a Bollywood talent” and was encouraged to “go back to singing” if she was serious about winning.”

Since her 2014 win, Davuluri has worked as a public speaker and advocate for diversity, gender equality, and the promotion of STEM education. In this capacity, she has spoken in both political and diplomatic venues. She is currently the host of the reality show “Made in America” on Zee TV America.


Esmé Weijun Wang is a Taiwanese-American writer. She is the author of “The Border of Paradise, A Novel” (2016) and “The Collected Schizophrenias” (2019). She is the recipient of a 2018 Whiting Award and in 2017 was selected by Granta Magazine for their once-a-decade Best of Young American Novelists list of 21 authors under 40.

Wang received her MFA from the U-M Helen Zell Writers’ Program in 2010—her thesis became the basis for a chapter in her first novel, which was a gothic drama about a family whose patriarch committed suicide, leaving the mother to raise her two children alone. The Chicago Review of Books noted the careful handling of mental illness in each of the characters, concluding that “the novel raises interesting questions about child rearing, culture, and isolation”.

Wang’s 2019 essay collection, “The Collected Schizophrenias” focuses on her experiences related to her struggles with schizoaffective disorder. It won starred reviews from a variety of publications, and was a New York Times bestseller. 

Wang was diagnosed with late-stage Lyme disease in 2015. The combination of living with chronic illness and schizoaffective disorder inspired her to found The Unexpected Shape Community, a resource for “ambitious writers living with limitations, chronic conditions, and disabilities.”

I believe in resilience. My enthusiasm for both the practice and the living-out of resilience are borne out by my own daily existence with illness—I choose to live as best as I can, and I encourage others living with chronic illness and other forms of limitation to do the same.”


Diane Gromala is a Canada Research Chair and a Professor in the Simon Fraser University School of Interactive Arts and Technology. Her research lies at the intersection of computer science, media art and design, and has focused on the cultural, visceral, and embodied implications of digital technologies—particularly in the realm of chronic pain.

Gromala received her bachelor’s degree (BFA) in Design & Photography from Stamps School of Art & Design in 1982. After graduating from U-M, Gromala worked in industry as art director for both MacWorld and Apple Computer. She was one of the first artists to work with immersive virtual reality (VR), beginning with Dancing with the Virtual Dervish, a landmark artwork co-created with choreographer Yacov Sharir. They created it as part of a 1990 Banff Centre for the Arts’ Art & Virtual Environments residency and it went on to be exhibited worldwide from 1993–2004. 

Gromala subsequently designed immersive VR for patients to promote stress-reduction, anxiety-reduction and pain distraction during their chemotherapy while at Georgia Tech. Her work has been used in over 20 hospitals and clinics.

Gromala is the Founding Director of the Chronic Pain Research Institute, an interdisciplinary team of artists, designers, computer scientists, neuroscientists, and medical doctors investigating how new technologies—ranging from virtual reality and visualization to social media—may be used as a technological form of analgesia and pain management.

In recent months, Gramala has made the news for her work to study patient needs for COVID-19 vaccine distribution software.


All illustrations in this series are by Sophie Herdrich. Captions are by Sydney Hawkins, Natsume Ono and Lilian Varner.

“Money Head” latest public art exhibition at U-M space on Selden and Woodward

Yvette Rock explores our nuanced relationship with money in her “Money Head” exhibition now on view through Feb. 5 on Selden Street, near the corner of Woodward Avenue.

The public art exhibition, which began in November, features the work of Detroit artists and designers at the Michigan Research Studio/ArcPrep space. The Michigan Architecture Prep program is Taubman College’s semester-long program that introduces juniors in the Detroit Public Schools to architecture and urbanisms. It has gone virtual since the onset of the pandemic.

“Normally this space is filled with the creative work of high school students interested in design–and the giant windows enable pedestrians to benefit from this energy,” said Nick Tobier, a professor of art and design in the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. “While we are not able to use the space for in-person work, the opportunity to share the creative output of Detroit’s artists and designers can continue to enrich this ground level streetscape.”

The exhibits, curated by Tobier, have also featured the work of Made in Local and Stef-n-Ty.

Rock, a University of Michigan alumna with a Master of Fine Arts in painting, said: “Money Head is a staged photographic and performance series that explores the complex role of money in our lives — from its influence on those who lack it to those who abuse its power.”

The “Money Head” headpiece can be opened and closed. Inside the headpiece, Rock placed objects collected over the course of a few years. “These objects are placed around the staged photographic/performance scene. Some objects include: a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a stuffed animal in the form of cow, a small heart-shaped brick found from the original construction site of Detroit’s Q-Line, and a “Money Head” doll I made.”

Previous exhibitions in the space include:

More info:

Nick Tobier
ArcPrep Exhibitions
Michigan Architecture Prep (ArcPrep)


This story was originally published in U-M Detroit News + Stories.

Lessons in architecture: 3-D without leaving the classroom (or living room)

In previous semesters when architecture professor Jonathan Rule wanted his students to see firsthand the way various materials came together in construction he had to find a building project on or near campus and arrange for the class to walk through a site.

“It really helps to see the actual physical artifact as a way to understand how that 3-dimensional construct is translated to a 2-dimensional drawing,” said Rule, assistant professor of practice at the A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “We have fairly good textbooks but they don’t replace the onsite experience.”

Rule said he “got lucky” for a couple of years because the Taubman building that houses the architecture program and the nearby Veteran’s Administration were undergoing major construction projects.

“We know that every single year we can’t get a construction site visit,” he said, not to mention the logistics and liability involved with setting up a tour to only see one small part of a year-and-a-half to two-year building process. “How do we facilitate this kind of experience?”

With help from a Center for Research on Learning and Teaching grant Rule began the initial research and development of “Augmented Tectonics,” to introduce augmented and virtual reality into teaching. The virtual reality would provide a simulated construction experience. The augmented reality would involve a smart device app that would allow students to interact with 3D modeling and use the technology for design. A pilot last year showed modest success but also revealed gaps that would need to be addressed, Rule said.

Students at Taubman College wore the Oculus Rift headset to explore architectural landmarks.

He heard about the XR Initiative from the Center for Academic Innovation and its fund for faculty with ideas for using augmented, virtual and mixed reality technology in teaching. Rule and colleagues Craig Borum and Claudia Wigger, who teach large gateway courses that serve about 100 students a year, applied and were among eight projects funded in the inaugural year.

“We’ve gotten better at it but also we knew we needed additional input on how this actually should be done, so thankfully the XR Initiative came about,” Rule said.

This semester students in Architecture 317 (undergraduate) or Architecture 417 (graduate) beta tested a mixed reality app that took them inside a building to learn about the materials—primarily steel. A handful of students used an Oculus Rift while others explored the program through an app on a computer.

Putting the Oculus headset on transported juniors Noah Kellman, Caitlyn Chua and Kilala Ichie-Vincent and graduate student Zoe Elliott into a virtual museum containing buildings such as the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the national historic landmark is a canonical building that is an example of impeccable detailing using steel as the main material, Rule said.

An image of the Farnsworth House as seen by students in the HoloLens2.

The students described their experience as similar to the museum environment with various portals to explore, with the names of construction materials: metals, concrete, masonry, wood and glass. The only one ready for entry for the beta test was steel.

Through the portal information appeared on various pedestals, much like in a museum, but unlike those places where artifacts are “untouchable” the students were able to virtually put their hands on the material.

“Being able to hold something in VR was very similar to holding something in reality,” Ichie-Vincent said. “That quality of it gave me a better understanding of what was going on in the class.”

Student Noah Kellman tries out the HoloLens2 technology for construction architecture.

The students all agreed coming into the class it is difficult to understand how construction materials come together, and seeing them through this new perspective helped clarify the relationships.

“Once I went through that portal it took me to another world, I guess you could say, and basically we found the class material we were learning in these buildings,” Kellman said. “One of the really exciting opportunities with VR, I think, is it can help students better articulate how something actually works. To me that was extremely invaluable learning. And the ease of doing it, too, is just incredible.”

The 3D aspect put it into perspective for Elliott.

“The objects were definitely in 3D in the VR environment so it wasn’t flat, it was actually tangible, you could see the depth within the objects,” she said. “It was like walking through a video game but you’re in the video game.”

In addition to showing students the way materials work together, the program offers design challenges, instead of weekly quizzes, where they can size the dimension of a beam, explain how to assemble a wall, try out a material to see if it works in an area of a construction project, or match a drawing to its 3-D space.

“It is such a great tool to see real human scale, which is something I feel we miss a little bit in architectural design, and how someone would truly interact with space, especially in terms of height and dimension,” Chau said.

It turns out, the idea to integrate the technology couldn’t have come at a better time, as COVID-19 shut down most of the construction projects on campus and forced the university into remote and hybrid learning.

“I think VR, especially in COVID is invaluable to actually be able to see it in 3D when you can’t go out somewhere, especially those who have health conditions or those who have other things to do, like parenting or a job,” Elliott said.

Rule said having the first trial helped the team zero in on what needed improvement or modification.

“It was also a positive thing because it also had us think about accessibility for all students,” Rule said. “So, some students we found last year get very dizzy when they put these headsets on. There is a bit of motion sickness that can be caused by these virtual reality headsets. Some people get over, some never get over it.”

They also found that immersion for more than 30 minutes leads to boredom.

COVID-19 has slowed momentum on full integration of the technology a bit, Rule said. A small VR lab in Taubman with VR headsets is part of the plan for the future.

In order to get more headsets into the hands of students, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library will also have a checkout program, courtesy of the Center for Academic Innovation, shortly after the first of the year, dependent on what happens with pandemic restrictions.

Moving forward, Rule and the team at the Center for Academic Innovation are planning on completing the remaining material modules and fully integrating it into the course for fall 2021. In the future, they are also discussing new directions and interdisciplinary collaborations around these technologies and their affordance they might have in aiding in spatial vision development across multiple disciplines.

Jonathan Rule

This story was originally published in Michigan News.