Rowan debuts virtual reality game at Bridgeton High SchoolMay 23, 2012
“Are you a game player?” Dr. Ying (Gina) Tang asked the class of seven Bridgeton High School students on a May morning. “This time, you will play the game, have fun and learn something.”
The Rowan University associate professor of electrical and computer engineering then dismissed the students to their computers to begin a beta test of a new software program designed to teach them fundamentals of engineering while they had some fun.
The click of an icon brought up the students’ first glimpses of "Gridlock." High-definition images of a city intersection appeared on each monitor. As students pulled on their headphones and tapped the keyboards, the intersection roared to life. Computer-generated cars crashed, rolled and flipped into each other.
Tang and Rowan graduate student Aaron Johnson and senior computer and electrical engineering major Chris Franzwa watched as the Bridgeton students explored the virtual eco-city they created for this game, the second module in their educational virtual game series "SustainCity." Tang has been working on this research since 2010, when the National Science Foundation awarded the project a three-year $250,000 grant. In December 2011, students at Burlington County Institute of Technology in Medford, N.J., began beta testing "Power Ville," the first game in the "SustainCity" series.
According to Jerry Marinacci, the teacher of the Digital Electronics course at Bridgeton, the students — all honors students who are taking the engineering class offered through Project Lead the Way, which works with teachers to develop engineering curricula, as an elective course — are used to working on projects in teams. Sometimes they use real timers, counters and other parts to create a breadboard, a model of electronics systems. Other times students do their work on computers.
Gridlock takes these computer-based projects to the next level. The virtual reality game challenges students in new ways, requiring them to do the calculations, complete quizzes and actually design the circuits necessary to develop clock-controlled traffic lights to reduce congestion and accidents in the virtual city.
The game couldn’t have been implemented at a better time. The high school class is currently studying timers, counters and circuits like those being used in the game.
Tang and her Rowan students weren’t present just to watch the beta test. They attended to help guide the high school students and teacher through the game and see what aspects of the game could be improved. By the end of the first day of beta testing, which began at 11:30 a.m. on May 16, Rowan team members had a few ideas of what they needed to work on to make the game the best it could be. The chat feature designed to help student groups communicate within the game needed work to become fully operational. A couple of interface glitches appeared, but the Rowan students planned to fix those bugs later that night by modifying codes. The biggest concern was how to best get the student players the information they need to succeed in the game.
“This is something we’re teaching at the college level,” said Tang, debating whether the level of difficulty of the game was suitable for high school students.
The high school class admitted that Gridlock was more difficult than their usual projects because the game required them to learn as they played and to consider the practical applications of designing circuits, not just the technical process. However, even during the most challenging moments, these high school students said that the game module was a “really cool” way to learn engineering.
Marinacci and his colleagues in the Project Lead the Way engineering courses at Bridgeton High School hope that the game will be put to even better use in the future. Next year, they’d like to introduce students in other engineering courses, including civil engineering, to the "SustainCity" games. The modules, which explore subjects from circuitry to energy sources, should be excellent tools to integrate into an expanded engineering curriculum. The series doesn’t just teach specific principles or skillsets. It requires students to develop their own solutions to problems. Even better, the games encourage students to view themselves as future engineers.
Three more game modules have already been planned for the "SustainCity" series. Tang and her team will create "ThermoPower" and "BioEnergy." Engineering professors and students at Tennessee State University will assist the Rowan team by designing and implementing a module. The Educational Information and Resource Center (EIRC), a non-profit education organization, will host a workshop this summer to teach instructors how to use virtual reality programs like "SustainCity" in the classroom. This upcoming collaboration with teachers and their students will give the team members the feedback they need to complete the project. Tang then intends to work with Project Lead the Way on the national level to further expand the use of virtual reality games in the classroom.