Using the Sense of Touch to Enhance Learning

According to the theory of embodied cognition, knowledge can be deeper and longer lasting when we use the different senses together with various parts of our body to interact with whatever we would like to learn. Consequently, the brain receives stimuli from diverse channels that integrate with each other to produce a more complete assimilation of the information. In this way, haptic technology makes it possible to enrich a purely visual simulator displayed on a screen, adding the sense of touch to generate a new sensory experience with enormous educational potential.

The word haptic comes from the Greek “haptesthai” which means “to touch” (or related to the sense of touch). Interaction is achieved by adapting an external physical control to the simulator or “haptic device” (usually by means of a lever), which allows the user to manipulate the simulation objects on the screen, thus perceiving the forces applied on them as though they were real. Simulators that integrate haptic devices to manipulate the objects within the simulation are called “visuo-haptics”, which use a technology similar to that of videogames such as “Kinect” (Microsoft Xbox 360).

The knowledge acquired is deeper and longer term when our brain receives stimuli from different channels which are integrated with each other, producing a more complete assimilation of the information.

The potential of haptic technology to enrich simulations for physics concepts is enormous. With the appropriate scenario design, it can allow students to experience the forces that exist in a physical situation, such as the tensile strength of a rope or the frictional forces between surfaces. In addition, visuo-haptic simulations can be generated in which the user manipulates different electrical charges or charge distributions and feels the electrostatic attraction or repulsion forces existing in the system. This object manipulation will allow the student to appreciate the interactions in the system more clearly and experience them more vividly, thus developing a more comprehensive understanding of phenomena, with longer-term retention.

Haptic devices have mainly been used in medical training and education, while visuo-haptic simulators have been developed to perform medical operations, such as surgeries, sutures and dental procedures (Escobar et al. 2016). In this way, students can practice as many times as necessary without having to use corpses or animals. Moreover, several educational institutions have developed visuo-haptic simulators to teach physics, in the areas of Classical Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism (Hamza-Lup & Baird, 2012; Han & Black, 2011, Neri et al., 2015). For example, Purdue University developed a visuo-haptic simulator to understand the relationship between the force of friction exerted by a flat surface on a block, and the mass and size of the block.  

With haptic technology, students can experience forces present in a physical simulation, such as: tensile force of a rope, force of friction between surfaces, floating force on a body immersed in liquid and forces of interaction between distributions of electric charges.

A relevant aspect of these research undertakings is that, in general, students’ perception of the use of visual-haptic simulators is very good, since they find this type of technology innovative, interesting and motivating. However, further research must be conducted to determine the extent to which the use of haptic devices improves student learning or the type of competencies they would develop in students.

Professors from the Cyberlearning Laboratory, Mexico City Campus (CCM), in collaboration with researchers from Purdue University in Indiana, USA, are working on a project to develop visuo-haptic scenarios. Some of the simulators we have developed are: friction forces between blocks, forces, torques and lever arms on a revolving door and on an Atwood Machine, floating force on a body immersed in a liquid, and the interaction forces between different electrical charge distributions. We have carried out tests with groups of engineering students in Classical Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism courses at both institutions. The results have been presented in diverse forums and published in specialized education journals (Shaik et al., 2017; Neri et al., 2015; Yuksel et al., 2017)

So far, the findings are promising. In perception surveys regarding the use of visual-haptic simulators, students say that they feel highly motivated when using this type of environment. Moreover, we have carried out studies that compare the exam grades obtained by students who have worked with the visuo-haptic scenarios (experimental group) with those obtained by students who study the same concepts in a traditional class without simulators (control groups). The preliminary results suggest better grades on average for the experimental group than for the control group.

Although the results are encouraging, tests should be conducted with more students in order to confirm this trend. In addition, a greater number of scenarios where haptic devices are used need to be designed, in physics and other areas of engineering at the undergraduate and high school levels. Another issue is the need to improve the quality of the visualizations so that, on the one hand, they are more attractive and realistic and, on the other, the depth dimension in the simulation can be perceived better. In this way, the user will adapt more easily to the simulator and need a shorter training period with the haptic devices before conducting the experiments proposed by the instructor. The work groups at Tecnológico de Monterrey and Purdue are currently focusing on these aspects and we expect to obtain better results in the coming months.

I would like to invite teachers who are interested in learning more about the visuo-haptic scenarios for Physics and Electricity and Magnetism, as well as Engineering and Science simulators in general, to contact me if they have any questions. I will gladly guide them in the application of this technology in their courses, conduct tests with them and share their results.

About the author
Luis Jaime Neri Vitela holds a Ph.D. in Physics and is a full-time professor at Tecnológico de Monterrey. He is certified in the Problem-Based Learning and Collaborative Learning techniques. His research areas include the impact of technology on science and engineering education, the use of simulators and online systems, e-learning and m-learning, as well as the implementation of innovative teaching methodologies for active student learning.