Using games to improve engineering education

Baby lions play with each other to learn how to fight.

Playing games is an ability that born with us. We invent games that come from real practice. Chinese chess is a game that mimics a small-scale war. Playing is an activity that can prepare the players for more serious jobs. Chinese chess was used to train army commanders.

I saw games been used in K-12 education. Portal 2 (a computer game) was used to teach physics is a middle school. Minecraft has a version for education. A friend of mine (who is a primary school student) has his homework to play a mathematic game during his fall break. That game was designed specifically for practicing math operation. K-12 education in some sense is more essential than higher education. Maybe that’s the reason why I do not see many games designed for higher education. However, in the engineering field, I think using games in teaching could be very helpful.

When I came to Virginia Tech, the first project that founded me was to develop educational games for undergraduate students. My graduate program is transportation engineering. In transportation, there are several areas that need to be covered during undergraduate study. I developed five web games that cover traffic planning, highway design, pavement design, traffic control, and traffic safety. I with my advisor also designed quizzes for these topics. We did before-and-after studies. In the studies, we let the students from an introduction to transportation class do the quizzes first and then play the games. After playing the games, we asked them to do the quizzes again. Since there is no other activity between the two quizzes and no feedback were given to them, playing the games should be the only factor that affects the quizzes scores. The results showed that most students got higher scores in the quizzes after the gameplay. We did the study several times, and the results were steady.

So, from my own experience, there is no doubt that the designed web games can improve students’ understanding of the targeting knowledge. However, that’s not the end of the story. The web games provide the possibility of customized teaching for each student. The game itself is an interactive visualization tool. It also provides a simulated world for students to explore. Students can get customized feedback based on their current understanding which can be revealed by their gameplay data. With the rising tide of data science, I can imagine the future educational games would be able to sense the students’/players’ level of understanding in the subjects and provide an enjoyable learning experience for them.

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