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Photo: Courtesy of Sacha Best

The School of Engineering and Applied Science has a new class on virtual reality. The twist? It's being taught by an undergraduate student.

Engineering senior Sacha Best teaches Computer and Information Science 568, "Virtual Reality Practicum," twice a week. The class has around 20 students, although around 85 applied to take it.

“The goal of this Virtual Reality Practicum class is to take adept programmers and computer scientists and give them the background … to make VR, or virtual reality, application,” Best said. “So it’s targeted at people who have a good deal of experience, but maybe not in VR specifically, and to kind of catalyze them and give them a chance to see what the industry is like.”

Teaching a class as an undergraduate is not something the average Penn student might do. But Best is by no means a normal pupil.

“I came into Penn as a freshman and skipped 110, 120, and 121, which are the first three intro to computer science classes,” he said. “So I’ve taken classes seriously out of order, skipped some, bounced around the major a little bit.”

While the faculty loved Best’s pitch for the course, they had to figure out how to get around the fact that he was an undergraduate student. The ultimate solution was that they used a graduate course number and made Computer and Information Science professor Stephen Lane the instructor on record. Trung Le, who is a graduate student pursuing his master’s degree in computer graphics, is a co-instructor of the course.

“It’s essentially the best way we could address the student interest without breaking rules in the system,” Best said.

Lane, the director of the computer graphics and game technology master's program, has over 15 years of experience in the industry of virtual reality. But he said he believes Best’s young age contributes to his ability to teach the course. 

Lane added that he appreciates how Best is a former student of his and thus can assist him in finding the most helpful way to present information to students.

“By having Sacha involved with it now, that’s helping me kind of figure out, in a more efficient way, how to present this to students,” Lane said.

While Best is young, he certainly brings a breadth of experience to the classroom. He started his career at Activision working on the games "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare" and "Destiny," then moved on to Walt Disney Animation Studios for a combination of VR and motion capture research. He most recently worked at SpaceX, where he created rocket-building software, as well as some confidential VR tools for machining visualization.

Engineering senior Davin Hazard is a student in Best’s class. She was eager to take it and said she feels that it will be very useful in her future.

“I’m finally being able to apply a lot of the techniques and things I’ve learned in a more tangible way and actually see it,” she said. “It’s been pretty cool.”

Hazard also recognizes the leg-up this class will give her once she graduates and enters the workforce.

“Not a lot of people have VR experience in college,” she said. 

Best seconded that sentiment.

“The hope is that these students are gonna be way ahead of the curve,” he said.

Even though he is busy in his final semester at Penn, Best said he's grateful that the computer graphics department allowed him to teach his class.

“It’s the highlight of my week,” he said.

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