Defending the old schools

It seems the fashion way of making impacts is to critique the old school and say something new. It is justifiable: things keep changing as time goes, and time keeps going. People destroy the old tools and inventing the new tools and call it a revolution. It’s an iteration. The old tools used to be some great inventions replacing their predecessors, and now it should be understood that they are replaced by the new generations.

The evolution is inevitable.

So is the evolution in education. I see many arguments talk about stopping the standard test. The old schools which look serious and hard on students should be changed into joyful places.No students should be blamed.

Here I want to kindly remind you that most tools can excel other tools for a certain purpose. We should acknowledge that competition always exists when resources are limited. And the truth is that the resources are always limited and certain resources are so limited that people can feel the lack of them. In a market,  a supplier, in most cases, won’t get the chance to tell the clients or customers not to buy sofas but to buy chairs because they can only make chairs. They can survive if there are no other competitors and the chair is needed. However, if the chairs market cannot make any profit, they may not survive. I treat the standard tests as requests from the clients, the education system. Education is important to everyone and the educational resources are limited. The standard tests are part of the approaches to grant the education resourced. It should also be noticed that there are always paths beside the ordinary ways for extraordinary students.

Let’s Play: Engaging Engineering Students with Web Games

Game is everywhere, in daily life

“My kids show no interest in anything but games.” This is a complaint I heard many times by frustrated parents from different countries. But why does this phenomenon exist and to some extent become a global issue?

The interest to play games is not the patent of humankind. Without the ability to make tools, baby lions play with each other to learn how to bite and fight. The fights among these young warriors are not serious but provide vivid scenarios that mimic the future battles.What cannot kill you makes you stronger. In another word, what kills you makes you die. Playing games offer them chances to regret and improve their skills for more serious work.

Go, a board game, was used by an ancient king to stimulate his son’s wisdom. It’s obvious to say “people learn from their own experiences.” Sometimes experience comes from the practice that causes non-invertible damages. A more efficient way of learning is to learn from others’ experience. Some educators take the abstraction from the knowledge and put them into games. The desire to play games, from my understanding, comes from the intuition of strategies to learn and to survive.


Game is somewhere, in class

My first experience of games in class was where the games served as rewards for behaving well. Years later, I found out that games can be used as exercising or teaching tools. One combination of game and math class was to type the correct answers of visually nicely wrapped equations. Animations appear after the correct answering the questions to serve as a rewarding.

These kinds of nicely wrapped math exercise were expanded by commercial games whose original objective was for recreation. Minecraft, a popular digital game, released an education edition in 2016. In Minecraft education edition, a teacher can create Non-Player Characters who can guide the students through the topics. Students can talk to each other in the game world. Portal 2 is a First-Person-Shooting-like game. Instead of fire bullets, the gun in the game can only open portals that can be used to transport characters. In this game, other than the magic portals, the mechanics are realistic. Some teachers used this game to teach physics. SimCity is a game with decades of history. The game producer claimed that they implemented the four-step model in the game. The four-step model is a model that is taught in traffic planning class to senior students. Dr. Trani, a professor at Virginia Tech, said he used that game to teach traffic planning ten years ago.

Other than commercial games, there are games developed by higher education educators. These kind of games are usually small size-wise. They are more like interactive modules for different topics. The professors or educators are the fittest people to get involved in the design and/or development of the educational games. However, only a few of them know how to develop games. Using games cannot replace the formal way of teaching now so other educators cannot devote too much time to exploring how to develop games. Even the educators who know how to build games will not focus on polishing their games because most of them are still busy in fulfilling their other duties and building games are not on their evaluation criteria.

Most of the professional game developers who can develop educational games only know knowledge in K-12 education. This is true because those developers’ professional training during their higher education is to build games! So it is hard to have good educational games for higher education.

What I have done

I’m in transportation engineering. It was my advisor’s idea to start developing educational games for this area. When I got the assignment from my advisor, I started to think about games’ role in education. Transportation engineering is a broad area. There are several topics, serving towards transportation, with low correlation under this area. But in general, knowledge on all these topics is needed in order to build transportation systems. I, therefore, builded five games for those topics.


  • Road Crush


The earliest topic in transportation engineering is on the road. People need to build strong enough roads to link between origins and destinations, and this need spawns the research in pavement design.

I designed a game called Road Crush for this topic. In this game, players can see different traffic scenarios (different traffic volume and compositions) in different levels. They will need to design the pavement for the given scenarios. The main design parameters in pavement design are thickness and material for each layer. The design will be achieved by dragging materials onto different layers and dragging each layers to change the thickness of them. Visual feedback of each layer of the pavement and quantitative feedback of each parameters will be offered to the players as they play the game. The players are given a certain budget. If the players do not design the pavement well, the game will show the road get crushed by the traffic.


  • Angry Curves


People realized that strong pavement does not guarantee safe driving. Different highway curvatures result in different cost and safety measure. The study of curvature design falls into the topic of highway design.

The game for highway curvatures design is called Angry Curves. In the game, if the player does not design the curvatures well, the curves will get angry and throw the vehicles away. In reality, if the engineers do not design the curvatures well, the vehicles will fall and may even actually throw themselves away. I introduced certain constraints in this game to make the world more complicated and in a sense closer to real problems.  


  • Transporters


After the construction of a road system, people found out that some roads have higher traffic than the others. They can save some money while still provide better performance if they can put more money to build stronger and wider roads for those with higher traffic need and save money from the roads with lower traffic need. The process that predicts the traffic needs before the design and construction falls into the topic of traffic planning.

The transporters game includes an algorithm that has been used in traffic planning practice. The algorithm is from a model called four-step model. As is written in the name, the four-step model has four steps. The Transporters game will guide the players through the steps in different levels. In the final level, the players have a more complicated planning task to do and they will need to think about all the steps in the planning model. The game will show a visual feedback of where the road will be congested to the players after their design.


  • DZ-Man


There are intersections because two routes may meet and they want to use the same piece of land. When the traffic from both routes is high, the intersection becomes complicated. At first traffic police need to stand at the intersections to guide traffic. Then, traffic lights were introduced to serve a similar function of traffic police. Sometimes people can see traffic lights turn yellow when they approaching the intersection. It’s a dilemma that they do not know whether to stop or continue. A good traffic control should minimize the chance of this case.

DZ-Man is based on the concept of dilemma zone. Dilemma zone is the zone where people will have this dilemma of deciding whether to stop or go. In this game, players will need to control the traffic lights. They can see the cars in dilemma zone turn red when they turn the traffic lights to yellow. Their goal is to minimize the number of cars in dilemma zone.


  • Time-Space Invaders


When there are two intersections close to each other, the vehicles arriving patterns of one intersection are impacted by the signal timing of the previous intersection. The way to control multiple intersections cooperatively is called coordinated control. If the coordination is designed well, the traffic efficiency of these intersections can be improved significantly. A tool that has been used by the traffic control community to study and design the coordination is called time-space diagram. The time-space diagram reflects the trajectories of vehicles through a period of time.

I designed the Time-Space Invaders game to illustrate time-space diagrams and coordinated control concepts. The game visualization is based on a modified time-space diagram. I implemented a simulation algorithm to simulate the movement of cars. So the movement of the cars is, although random, realistic. When the students play this game, they can observe the phenomenon that is simplified and even ignored by people during a certain time in history.

Visits from surrounding middle schools

Although the targeting customers are the junior or senior undergraduate students, the games have been tested by middle school students. In the year of 2016 and 2017, students from surrounding middle schools visited Virginia Tech. We volunteered to give them short lectures on transportation engineering. It’s hard to explain the word of transportation engineering to those young visitors. Then we used the games. They got really interested in the games. During the lecture (and their gameplay), I heard voices from different seats. “I got an 8!” “I got a 10!” They are showing off the scores they got in the games. They are easy to get engaged. While they are playing the games, I started to explain to them what does the game elements mean in the real world and why what they saw happened. It’s rewarding to see the games can bring them happiness and knowledge at the same time.

Experience from what I have done

We tested the games in different years at Virginia Tech. The results showed the students can understand the hard concepts better in transportation engineering. The students were from transportation engineering classes and the concepts were taught in those classes. Ideally, the students should fully understand those concepts. The evaluations were conducted by before-and-after studies. The students were asked to do a quiz consisting of several multiple choice for a given topic before they play the corresponding game. No feedback on their grades was given to them. After playing the game, they were asked to do the quiz again. The quizzes and gameplay were untimed. Since playing the game was the only activity between the quizzes, it should be the only factor that causes the change of their grades. The statistics showed that their scores improved significantly. This means 1) their scores on the quiz improved, and 2) the improvement is not out of chance. This further implies the games can improve students’ understanding of the hard concepts in transportation engineering.

The middle school students from the visit showed more interest in the traffic planning game. Comparing to other games, the traffic planning game has more degree of freedom. The students can design the layout of the city rather than clicking certain buttons or dragging sliders. In another word, the world for them to explore is bigger. This phenomenon suggests education games developers to design games that can be explored further. However, to build a bigger world, the required time and resources become longer and more. A rewarding mechanism should be designed to encourage the developers and faculty to collaborate on building educational games.

The educational games can break barriers for students who do not have the background but still want to learn the topics. The transportation educational games were designed for junior or senior engineering students. However, the middle school students can still play them and learn certain knowledge from the gameplay.